Louisville dumped more than five billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into local waterways during an exceptional wet spell from June 2018 to July 2019. If you think that’s a problem, know that the city and federal government agree.
Fifteen years ago, the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the overflows, which date back two centuries to when the city’s earliest sewers were built.
The 2005 Consent Decree, amended during the Obama administration, outlines steps to fix the sewer system at an estimated cost of about $1.15 billion. Under the terms, MSD has until 2020 to fix combined sewer overflows and until 2024 to fix sanitary sewer overflows.
Now, Louisville could get more time to fix its sewage overflows under new EPA rules. The rules came in a bipartisan bill passed in 2018 that could give Louisville some flexibility in return for new projects, including green infrastructure like rain gardens and permeable pavement.
“We have been in talks about how to look at an integrated approach,” said Wes Sydnor, MSD spokesman. “The benefit of that is you can prioritize projects to allow for considerations of affordability and improved water quality across the watershed.”
Sydnor declined to comment on the specifics of any plans citing ongoing litigation.
A New York Times story that ran last week erroneously reported Louisville renegotiated an extra five years to complete the consent decree. NYT has since run a correction.
“I don’t know who the source for that was, but that is not true,” said Sheryl Lauder, MSD spokeswoman.
Lauder said the 2018 legislation allows MSD the possibility to negotiate new deadlines, but it would be contingent on new projects, and negotiations are ongoing.
Combined And Sanitary Sewer Fixes
For a long time, the city built combined stormwater and sewage pipes. So when it rains too hard in the older parts of the city, the water runs off the pavement and asphalt, drains into the sewers and overloads the system.
The city’s sanitary sewer systems aren’t designed to let stormwater in, but it infiltrates the system anyway through old, leaky pipes and illegal sump pump hookups, which remove water from basements.
In theory, all of that sewage and stormwater is supposed to travel to a wastewater treatment plant, but the plants can only handle so much volume at one time, so MSD is permitted to discharge the rest into local waterways, including the Ohio River and Beargrass Creek.
To date, MSD has built 14 reservoirs to capture sewage overflow with a total storage capacity of 266 million gallons. It’s also working on a massive-underground storage system that will run four miles underneath the city, known as the Waterway Protection Tunnel.
MSD has also created a system to digitally manage and optimize sewage flow using a series of gates and controls.
This week, MSD expects to hit the two-mile mark on the Waterway Protection Tunnel. The $200 million project is slated to be complete by the end of the year and would add another 55 million gallons of storage to the system.
“So we’ll end up with cleaner, safer waterways. The tunnel is the last piece of the combined sewer overflow portion,” Lauder said.
The overall goal is to capture and store as much sewage water as possible so that MSD can send it to places like the Morris Forman plant for treatment, rather than dump it into the Ohio River.
MSD says it’s taken climate change into account — knowing that warmer average temperatures will bring about larger storms and heavier downpours — but admits that overflows will probably still happen during the largest storms.
“I’m not really sure we can plan for the worst of the worst,” Lauder said. “That would probably be prohibitively expensive.”
Changing Plans And Timelines
Over time, MSD has adjusted plans for how to best manage the sewage overflows. In 2018, for example, MSD canceled plans to build a sewage storage basin in the Highlands and instead opted to build the Waterway Protection Tunnel.
MSD estimates it still needs nearly $270 million to finish the Consent Decree projects, and a total of more than $4.3 billion over the next 20 years to overhaul the sewers and flood protection system, Lauder said.
MSD’s board has the authority to raise rates up to 6.9 percent per year, but can’t raise rates higher without Louisville Metro Council’s approval. MSD officials say raising rates would allow the city to do more, faster, but they haven’t been able to secure the votes in Metro Council.
Attorney Paul Calamita with AquaLaw represents cities across the country on sewer overflow programs. He says it’s important to keep in mind the difficulty in forecasting massive infrastructure projects.
“Almost all of that is the best educated guess, and it’s almost always wrong,” Calamita said. “If you knew what Louisville was going to look like in 15 years, you can make a lot of money.”
Calamita says the water infrastructure act of 2018 — sponsored by presidential candidate and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — will allow cities flexibility to re-prioritize their investments. That could mean trading an underground sewage reservoir for a park that serves as stormwater storage, he said.
“The hard thing is to do green, but it does take longer,” he said. “We’re not evil, we’re just trying to get the most out of the public dollars we’re charged to spend wisely.”