Small Oregon towns struggle to fix aging sewage systems

COOS BAY — Sitting on the sandy shores of Coos Bay, one of this coastal city's sewage treatment plants is coming to the end of its life, and its age is showing. It has had four spills and been fined two times in recent years for pumping out unclean water.

There are aging facilities like the 36-year-old Plant No. 2 across the state, many desperately needing modernization.

An Associated Press examination has found that many of these municipal sewage systems have not kept up with demand, repairs and new technology, and now need millions of dollars to meet tighter federal clean water standards.

But paying for improvements is proving to be a struggle — especially for small towns. This is slowing mandated improvements to water quality, and could lead to growing health threats.

"The smaller the community, the more difficult it is for them to maintain their wastewater treatment plants," said Larry McAllister, program analyst for Oregon's Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The simple reason: fewer people to share the cost.

Unlike the 1970s, when many of the plants were built, outright grants are rare, and even qualifying for low interest loans can take years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the nation needs to raise $388 billion on top of existing funding to improve wastewater treatment systems by 2019. Another $148 billion on top of current resources will be needed to run and maintain them.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's wastewater system a D- in its 2009 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure," and estimated that Oregon alone needs $3 billion in improvements.

Failing to make improvements "risks reversing public health, environmental and economic gains" made over the last 30 years, the report said.

Communities across the country are raising rates an average of 8 percent a year, but will have to double them to plug the gap, said Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

"Communities are definitely in a situation where they are being stressed," Kirk said.

The municipalities that managed to keep rates low by neglecting maintenance now find they can't qualify for grants because their rates are too low. Meanwhile, they face fines of thousands of dollars when the plants break down.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality enforcement records show the number of fines for failing plants rose steadily from seven in 2004 to 39 in 2008, before dropping to 19 in 2009. So far eight new fines have been levied in 2010.

Typically they run several thousand dollars, but in 2007 the city of Newport was hit with one for $61,533, and in 2008 the city of Portland was fined $660,800.

"I think we are reaching a point over the next 10 years where it could become really serious," said Kenneth J. Williamson, professor of environmental engineering at Oregon State University and vice chairman of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.

Oregon has a running list of 130 cities seeking $440 million in low-interest loans for clean water projects. It can only offer $96 million, enough to cover the top nine projects considered ready to go, records show.

Last July, Oregon got $44 million in federal stimulus funds for water quality improvement projects, and was able to fund 13 projects. There were 160 applications representing $718 million in projects, according to the environmental quality department.

All that leaves Coos Bay and other small towns in a jam.

Struggling to find new industries to replace timber and fishing, the coastal city of 17,000 was hit last February with a $15,150 fine for discharging insufficiently treated wastewater into the bay, and failing to properly monitor what was coming into the plant.

The city also paid fines of $13,200 in 2009 and $4,500 in 2008, records show.

Mayor Jeff McKeown said for years the City Council kept sewer and water rates down, and now residents face more than $40 million in upgrades over the next 20 years to replace leaky sewer pipes, replace pumping stations, and upgrade Plant No. 2.

The council recently approved a 6.5 percent increase in rates that typically run $43 a month, but that is a drop in the bucket. Rates are still so low the city can't qualify for grants and will have to float bonds, he said.

"The economy is struggling right now," he said. "It's not a good time to ask our rate-payers to pay another 6.5 percent. Unfortunately we have no choice. DEQ mandated we do this. If we don't do it, we're subject to fines which can be very extreme."

Vernonia, a former logging town of 2,400 in the Coast Range now serving as a bedroom community to the Portland area, raised $4.5 million in 2005 to replace its old sewage lagoons, but a flood wiped them out two years later. The latest estimates for replacing them are $10 million.

"We have gone ballistic," said city administrator Bob Young. "There is no way I am going to put the city into a $10 million sewer plan. It would double our utility rates. We are back almost to square one looking at what we can do."

Meanwhile, plants are having to meet new federal limits on water temperature intended to protect salmon, and pollutants they were never designed for, such as ammonia.

Hermiston, an eastern Oregon farming and transportation hub of 16,000 people, hopes to solve its temperature problem by discharging into irrigation canals, where the limits don't apply, instead of the Umatilla River.

Otherwise it would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a cooling system, said city manager Ed Brookshier.

If they get a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it would cover a quarter of the $27 million cost for upgrades, he added.

"Ten or 15 years from now, people will be paying routinely $200, $300 a month bills for sanitary sewer service, and people will realize, 'Wow, what happened here.'" he said.

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