The groups were scheduled to convene at 11:30 a.m. in the CU Training Center for a working lunch in which CU board members and a team of utility engineers were set to detail the urgency of SCOPE 10 to City Council members. The code-named SCOPE initiative is an acronym for Strategic Commitment to Protect the Environment, a comprehensive repair, rebuild and renew project aimed at reducing sewer overflow during periods of flash flooding in the city.
To correct the utility’s stormwater woes means eliminating — or at the very least drastically curbing — problems with inflow and infiltration (also known as I/I) which is defined as extraneous (unwanted) water seeping into existing sewer lines through cracks, breaks or defects, and through damaged manholes.
Much of the I/I problem is created by age. As is the case with most U.S. cities that are struggling through their own infrastructure issues, Cleveland Utilities is committing to the total overhaul of its vast sewer line system; however, the campaign is neither short-term nor cheap.
Tom Wheeler, CU president and CEO, and Craig Mullinax, vice president of CU’s Water Division, have sounded the warning over the past couple of years — that fixing the sewer overflow issues along flooded city streets won’t happen overnight and financing the job will require a major chunk of change.
Also at issue is this is not an optional undertaking. Like plenty of other public utilities — many in Tennessee — Cleveland Utilities stands to be in violation of its NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit if problems are not corrected. NPDES violations can lead to painful penalties by not only state agencies, but by the federal-level Environmental Protection Agency. In short, state and EPA can impose a sewer moratorium on CU and the city if issues are not corrected. A sewer moratorium means no new connections can be made to the existing sewer lines and this would in effect stall new construction and economic development.
“This is a project that is not optional,” Wheeler told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “We cannot make a decision not to do what is required to prevent wastewater overflows in our system. Our NPDES Discharge Permit requires it and failure to take corrective actions can result in criminal penalties issued to the city.”
Wheeler said his goal going into today’s joint session with the City Council is to convey the urgency in committing to SCOPE 10, to keeping the initiative on a straight path and to do this through a funding package that will lead to 4.5 and 5 percent sewer rate increases to customers through at least 2020. The rate hikes are scheduled to begin in 2014.
“What I would like to accomplish at the meeting is to get the point across as to the importance of this project and offer the solutions that our engineers have developed to deal with the problem,” Wheeler said.
Another importance to today’s joint session is that it will require collective support from the public utility and the City Council, the CU leader pointed out.
“This is a major public works project and will take the buy-in from all parties to be addressed successfully by our city,” Wheeler stressed. “We appreciate the opportunity to meet with the entire Council to discuss this very important issue.”
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland has a rare perspective on the sewer rehab project. He has worked the problem for the past few years as both a Cleveland City Council and CU board member. Rowland said bringing the CU board and City Council into the same room is the right step to best understand the significance of SCOPE 10.
“This is a major project for the city’s future and the joint meeting gives the Council an excellent opportunity to ask questions,” Rowland said. “Both the Council and Cleveland Utilities can better serve our city when lines of communication are established.”
Rowland said the CU board’s request to meet in joint session with the City Council is in itself indicative of the urgency in correcting the city’s sewer overflow problems.
“I appreciate Cleveland Utilities sharing the project with the Council to show its importance,” the Cleveland mayor cited.
Through a proactive approach like SCOPE 10, CU is hoping to avoid the plight faced by a few other Tennessee towns like Nashville, Chattanooga, Brentwood, Oak Ridge and Knoxville that are being forced to raise sewer rates by amounts ranging from 25 to 330 percent in order to pay for sewer rehabilitation projects of their own.