These days, the rain in Louisville comes on fast and hard. The intense rainfalls are contributing to sewer overflows and inland flooding, and they’re why the Metropolitan Sewer District recently proposed a 20 percent rate increase.
The plan was approved by the MSD board last week, and it’s now is set to go before the Metro Council.
In the older parts of the city, it only takes one-tenth of an inch of rain in an hour to trigger a combined sewer overflow — where the water treatment plant can’t handle the volume of liquid it’s getting, and so a mix of rainwater and diluted sewage is released into places like Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River.
This sewer overflow problem is why Louisville is in the middle of spending $850 million to upgrade the system — changes the city is legally required to make by the federal government. It’s why MSD is building wastewater storage basins around the county and planting strategically placed rain gardens to reduce the water that ends up in the sewers.
And the city has to continue this work. But meanwhile, all that heavy rain the city has seen in recent years is causing problems with other areas of MSD’s operations.
“There are catastrophic issues that are jeopardizing public health and community safety,” said MSD Director Tony Parrott. He’s been on the job — and in Louisville — since September. And he said a significant rate increase is necessary to fix and update critical infrastructure, like the walls and pump stations that protect the city from flooding.
“We’re spending $1,000 here, $5,000 there, making Band-Aid repairs, but meanwhile, we’re seeing major assets failing,” Parrott said.
Without raising rates, Parrott said MSD can’t borrow any more money to continue work on major projects. The agency is nearly $2 billion in debt. And so, Parrott’s staff has proposed a 20 percent rate increase go into effect on Aug. 1.
Louisville ratepayers have seen their MSD bills increase every year for the past decade. But except for a 26 percent increase in 2007, the annual increase is usually more in the 5 or 6 percent range. And a 20 percent increase that amounts to nearly $9 a month for an average ratepayer is hard for some to swallow.
Barry Zalph said Louisville should have seen this coming.
“We really are on the cusp of disastrous changes,” he said.
Zalph is on the board of the Louisville Climate Action Network. He said the city has 145 years of climate and weather data, and in that time period, seven of the 10 wettest years have been since 1996.
As the earth’s climate changes, areas like Louisville are seeing more rain — and more intense rainfalls. The same rain that causes those sewer overflows is taxing flood protection systems and leading to more inland flooding.
Zalph said MSD’s proposed improvements are necessary to protect the community. But also, he said, maybe the city has dropped the ball when it comes to promoting smart development.
“Each time we look at our comprehensive plan and our land development code, we have opportunities to reduce the amount that we’re going to be increasing our impervious area,” Zalph said. “We have opportunities to incentivize things like tree planting and green infrastructure and so on, by making it easier for developers to get projects approved when they include these environmentally friendly, climate-friendly adaptations.
“But we haven’t chosen to do that.”
As far as MSD Director Parrott is concerned, raising rates to make improvements now will be a lot more cost-effective than spending money later to mitigate the damage from future flooding. But the rate increase has to be approved by the Metro Council, and Councilman David James, D-6, said he needs to hear a lot more about why such a large rate increase is necessary.
“Right now, I don’t know that I’ve heard those explanations, I don’t think the citizens have heard those explanations,” James said. “I don’t believe that a 20 percent rate increase passed on to some of our lowest-earning citizens that are my constituents has been justified or should occur. So, I just have to hear a lot more from MSD.”
That’s what Parrott will have to do before Metro Council members next month: make the case that Louisville’s stormwater and flooding infrastructure is in need of dire repair, and people need to invest in their community’s safety as the climate changes. He pointed out that most people pay more for internet and cell phones than they do for wastewater treatment and stormwater management.
“I think we’re at a crossroads where we as a community need to ask the question: How do we value water and sewer services?” he said.
The Metro Council can only accept or reject MSD’s proposed rate increase — it can’t make changes. If the council says no, MSD would have to submit another, likely smaller rate increase for consideration.