As we prepared to reopen Town Hall on Monday (details here), we were also preparing for a tri-board meeting that took place this week between the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), Board of Selectman and Board of Finance. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the current challenges facing our sewer system and the WPCA’s request that the Town pursue a $10-million-dollar bond for the purpose of reinvestment in the Stonington sewer system. Given the magnitude of this meeting and the subsequent steps that will be taking place, I have dedicated this update to the discussion of our sewer system.
Challenges in the Operating Budget
Despite repeated increases in sewer user fees, the WPCA operating budget has been losing money each year. The principal driver of Stonington’s high operating costs is because we are one of the few municipalities in the country to have three separate treatment facilities serving a relatively small user base. To further illustrate this point, it is helpful to know that the one treatment facility in New London also serves the towns of Waterford and East Lyme as well.
The cost of contract operations has gone up significantly, driven largely from increased power usage, the cost of that electricity and the mandate to improve the quality of the effluent that goes into our waterways. For example, the switch from chlorine for disinfection to UV light at all three facilities, although environmentally friendlier, is much more expensive to operate and requires a stock of expensive parts. Given all of this, the WPCA can barely manage to support operational costs, let alone fund needed capital expenditures. Additionally, given the small user base, raising user fees to make the WPCA self-supporting would be prohibitively expensive for residents and local business, as well potentially driving business investment elsewhere.
In 2010, the WPCA obtained an $18 million dollar bond to renovate and modernize the Mystic Facility which the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection mandated. The majority of those funds were spent at that facility with limited improvements made to the Pawcatuck and Borough facilities, which included a change in the disinfection systems to UV Light and installation of more efficient air blower systems for the biological process. No funding within that was allocated for Pawcatuck or the Borough Facilities other than those two improvements and none was allocated for the 17 pumping stations the WPCA operates. Fortunately, when the project was completed there was approximately $650,000 remaining from that bond.
Over the past few years, the WPCA has been using this remaining balance to pay for the replacement and repair of various critical equipment that has broken down, some expected and some not. A few examples are the airline replacement at Pawcatuck, which was corroded beyond repair and replaced at a cost of $219,000, replacement of 300 feet of collapsed sewer line on Holmes street at a cost of $125,000, a generator replacement at the White Rock pump station for $65,000 and numerous other repairs and replacements as they have come up.
Those remaining funds from the 2010 bond are now nearly depleted and looking forward there are serious and expensive repairs and replacement projects required to keep the system functioning. One of these is the secondary clarifiers at the Pawcatuck facility, which were not on anyone’s radar as a potential problem. Nevertheless, one of them has failed and the other is close to failing. Should that happen we will likely be in violation of our permit and will cause environmental damage to the Pawcatuck River. The estimate of the cost for just this one project is over $450,000.
Another project that cannot be delayed is at the River Road pump station. River Road is the main pumping station for the Pawcatuck Facility and eventually handles all the flows from the entire Pawcatuck sewer shed. There are also other pumping stations that need immediate work to remain operational. In reviewing all the priority work for the first year, the WPCA needs close to $4 million now for repairs and replacements. The rest of required work at the pumping stations and at the facilities are part of a five-year program that will be shared on the hearing notice as background and which will be ready for your review by early next week.
There is also an allocation in this bond request for future work that will be needed within the Mystic collection system when the Inflow and Infiltration Study is complete, as well as updating the facility plan which is now 14 years old. DEEP recommends that this report should be updated every 10 years. This facility plan is important because it provides an analysis of the state of the current system and plans for future needs and growth within it.
The WPCA believes by utilizing a bond versus annually returning to the Board of Finance for large sums, some of this work can be combined into bigger projects which will result in reduced overall costs. Equally important, a bond will help us avoid a catastrophic failure and will restore our sewer system as quickly as possible back to a robust and reliable system capable of supporting the existing and future needs of the community served.
While we had been planning to put a bond to market, we had hoped we could delay until the community could come together to vote in person via referendum as we would under normal circumstance. Due to both the increasing breakdowns of our aging system combined with the risks related to COVID-19, we are not able to pass this bond as we normally would.
This is not a position anyone on the WPCA, Board of Selectman or Board of Finance wants to be in, however, it is the reality of our current situation. The sewers are a time sensitive critical need that impact business and residents’ daily lives, our ability to attract new investment, and they play an important role in keeping our waterways clean- which is important for both recreation, as well as our local fishing community.
It is challenging for representatives in a town having a town meeting form of government to deal confidently, and comfortably, with the new procedures outlined in the Governor’s Executive Order 7S. It is not a decision to be taken lightly. The taxpayers in Stonington did not vote us in with the understanding we would be making such decisions, but as elected leaders on both the Board of Selectman or Board of Finance we have a responsibility to conduct business and protect our community during an emergency of unique character and of uncertain duration.
The Governor put these rules into place to be used where there is a matter of public importance. With them, he put also into place procedures that are designed to be substitutes for the way action is taken at town meeting and the way people participate. Through a public hearing we will still be able to consult with the electorate and receive their comments before acting. Therefore, I ask anyone interested in this, to please take the time to read and learn more. By early next week more detailed background papers will be shared and can be accessed via the link shared below. Both my office, and the WPCA would also be very happy to answer questions.
See here for information on submitting testimony for the June 16th Public Hearing on a potential sewer infrastructure bond. Please note, written submission is preferred, but you prefer to speak instead you will still need to sign up by June 15th.
If you have questions, ideas or concerns please call or email my office. Thank you.