BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — There are no easy answers to Maumee’s sewer problems.
As city officials grapple with fallout from news that for decades an excessive amount of sewer overflow has been illegally discharged into the Maumee River without being reported, residents and property owners are understandably angry. Many have taken to social media while others have confronted city officials in person, demanding answers.
Maumee Mayor Richard Carr, who has been in office for 23 years – first as a member of Maumee City Council and later as the mayor – has taken much of the criticism.
While he knew that discharge occurred during heavy rainfalls, Carr says that he had no idea there were orders from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandating limits on the amount of discharge allowable or that those orders were not being followed.
“That is somebody’s responsibility, and it’s not your mayor and your council, it’s your administration and management that are required to know those rules and apply them,” he said. “There’s no way I would know – those are technical jobs and I have no knowledge of that.”
Individuals originally tasked with handling the mandated reporting are no longer employed with the city, he added.
Maumee’s sewer system is a complex series of pipes that if stretched into one long line would reach the city of Columbus. Historically, municipalities have used two types of sewer systems – either combined sewers or separate sewer systems. With a combined system, both sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff drains into a single-pipe system that is carried to a treatment facility. Chicago, for example, has that type of system and is currently spending billions of dollars on repairs to it. A separated sanitary sewer system is designed for two separate systems – sanitary only and storm runoff only.
Maumee has a separated system, which means that ideally, the sanitary sewer lines carry only wastewater to the Lucas County Water Resource Recovery Facility. While the sanitary system is designed to handle some excess water that might get in, it is not designed to handle large volumes of storm or rain water; however, that is exactly what is happening in Maumee.
Each time a faucet or spigot is turned on, or a toilet is flushed in Maumee, the water comes from Maumee’s water towers – one on Dussel Drive and one on Illinois Avenue. After use, the water should drain through the sanitary system to the treatment plant. Data indicates that property owners in Maumee use an average of 2 million gallons of clean water per day from those towers, yet an average of 3.5 million gallons per day is sent to the treatment plant.
When Maumee city administrator Patrick Burtch began looking at the data after he was hired in early 2020, he realized that things were not adding up.
“In a perfect world, 1.7 million gallons would be metered at the sanitary sewer treatment facility when 2 million gallons are used, but an average of 2.5 million gallons per day might be more expected with that usage, and we are way over that,” he said.
In addition, in late March, when snow is melting and rainfall begins, that number balloons to over 5 million gallons per day going to the treatment plant, which would indicate that a large volume of storm water is infiltrating the sanitary system. That situation is not only taxing on the system, causing discharge to happen, but it also drives up costs since property owners pay more to the county for sewer treatment services, Burtch said.
There are numerous reasons the system is failing, and work has begun to remedy the problems, yet it will take years to reduce rain or ground water infiltration in Maumee’s sanitary system.
In some areas of the city, especially in the uptown district, the pipes are more than 100 years old and are leaking or are deteriorated. Improper connections are also large contributors to the problems in Maumee. Crews working on the uptown project recently discovered catch basins in parking lots that were tied to the sanitary system instead of the storm system. Property owners will be responsible for reconnecting the pipes to the correct system. Property owners with footer tiles tied into the sanitary line instead of the storm sewer are also putting a strain on the system and will have to get those connections fixed.
Inspections and testing will ramp up as new Ohio EPA guidelines are implemented that involve a response plan and three-year comprehensive sewer study.
At the next council meeting, Burtch will request approval to hire a firm to begin flow-monitoring the system. The highly advanced technology will track inflow and infiltration data throughout the entire system and will provide an accurate account of where the system is failing. The study will take place over the next two years and could cost $2 million.
By some estimates, the city could spend at least $100 million over the next 30 years to address the problem. The sewer fund is considered an enterprise fund and money to fix the sanitary system must be raised through rates that support the system. Historically, the city maintained a balance of approximately $1 million in the sewer fund for contingency purposes. The fund was never built up to a level needed to fund a substantial project, Burtch said.
Rate increases will begin next month and will progress to a 64-percent increase over the next four years. The hike is due to both the needed sewer repairs and rising costs from the Toledo Regional Water Agreement. That agreement, which Maumee City Council approved in 2019, calls for incremental increases in water fees to fall in line with the higher rates neighboring communities already pay.
If the federal government passes an infrastructure act, Maumee will file for grant money, Carr said. The recent bond sale will also fund portions of the work, he added.
“There’s a bit of a misconception that residents are going to bear the brunt of the costs. First, it is going to be spread out over 30 years, which is a long period of time,” said Carr. “For the last five years, we have operated at a balanced budget. It hasn’t been easy, but we did it, and we will continue to do it even with these repairs.”
Many residents have questioned Carr about property tax, but only a small fraction of the city’s revenue stream comes from that source. In fact, for property taxes paid on a home valued at $150,000, the city of Maumee receives only $170 annually, he said.
“It costs $121 per house just to collect the garbage and recycling,” said Carr. “I don’t disagree with people that their taxes are high, but they aren’t the taxes that come to the city of Maumee.”
Maumee’s revenue comes largely from income tax, which is why economic development is vital and it is the reason the city must continue other projects, such as uptown revitalization, Side Cut Crossings and the Anthony Wayne Trail improvements, Carr said.
“We can’t stop doing these other projects because we have a problem with the sewers,” Carr said. “In fact, it’s probably more important now to get them done, so we can keep our income tax base strong so that our residents’ taxes are as low as they can possibly be.”