Sewer plan predicts 28 percent rate hike
Blaine households will see their sewer rates go up 28 percent over the next four years to pay for a new sewer plant and an overhaul of the existing system, and consultants preparing the city’s new general sewer plan are recommending regular annual increases after that. “The city’s going to have to raise rates substantially,” said CH2M Hill project manager Jennifer Barnes.
Barnes and CH2M Hill vice president Ronald Brown presented the new plan to city council during a June 14 work session, identifying the deficiencies of the city’s existing sewer system and recommending the city spend $36 million over the next 25 years fixing them. “It’s considerable for a community this size,” Brown said. “This is a major program for any municipality.”
Brown said they had analyzed the capacity of the existing sewer plant on Semiahmoo Spit, inspected the outfall and developed a hydraulic model to pinpoint failures in the collection system. They then prioritized projects to address deficiencies in the system, from a new sewer plant on Marine Drive to 16,000 feet of new pipe.
The city’s first task will be to improve the existing treatment plant to meet state requirements over the next five years while a new facility is being funded and built, and to treat west Blaine sewage for up to 20 more years. “The improvements being proposed at the existing plant will get you through this next hump,” Brown said. Blaine public works director Steve Banham said the short-term improvements to the system were already underway.
The proposed capital improvement plan would start with improvements to the Marine Drive lift station and construction of overflow storage in 2005 and 2006. Design for a new wastewater treatment plant where the old storage tank now sits at the western end of Blaine Marine Park will start in 2005, with construction dollars budgeted for 2007 and 2008. The total cost of the plant is estimated at $16.5 million.
Brown said the location of the new treatment plant had been an important aspect of the new plan. “There was an extensive effort put into looking at every option,” he said, by consultants and city staff as well as the Citizens Waste Advisory Committee (CWAC) and other interested parties, such as the Lummi Nation. “The first recommendation was to pump it to Canada because it was the most cost-effective solution, but as discussions went further it came up that option wasn’t really available,” Brown said. As other options dropped away the Marine Drive location emerged as the most feasible and affordable solution.
“Because it is right in the middle of everything there was a greater level of scrutiny about what kind of facility would be built,” Brown said. The proposed plant is being described as a water reclamation facility, whose effluent will meet standards for irrigation water. Banham also said the plant would be designed to blend into the port area and would incorporate recreational and tourism elements, such as a lighthouse replica.
When it comes on line in late 2008 the new plant will only treat waste from the east side of the harbor, while west Blaine sewage will continue to be treated at the old plant. Several alternatives are being considered to treat west Blaine sewage, from pumping it back under the harbor to the new plant to sending it to Birch Bay for treatment. “There was a real concern about having raw sewage flowing under the harbor,” Brown said.
The capital improvement plan has earmarked $8 million from 2009 to 2025 for the west Blaine sewer solution, which will be developed as part of the sewer facility plan consultants will start work on as soon as the state has given final approval to the general sewer plan.
Collection system improvements, most of them scheduled for 2009-2025, will cost $5 million, and Banham said many of them can dovetail with road projects. “It’s underneath roads and alleys,” he said. When we do replace the road we replace the sewer lines,” he said.
Under the funding model Barnes proposed to pay for the project, 25 percent of funds are expected to come through grants. “In the past we’d assumed grant funding in the 50 to 70 percent range and that just isn’t going to happen,” Banham said.
Blaine ratepayers would pay the remaining three quarters of the project cost through a combination of low-interest loans and existing city capital funds. To pay off the annual $1.1 million in debt service Barnes predicted residential rates would need to go from the current $39.78 to $51.12 by 2008. On the positive side, she added that the state department of ecology had grant funding available specifically for communities where high sewer rates met their criteria for a hardship on local households. For Blaine that threshold would be $46.13, so the predicted increase would put the city well over the mark.
City manager Gary Tomsic cautioned that the numbers were only projections, and that while more grant funding could mean fewer increases in rates, fewer grants would mean higher rates. “Sometimes you throw out a number and it sticks when it shouldn’t,” he said. “We need to talk in ranges, because it could be $60.”
Banham said the city was planning to commission a rate study to look at how incremental increases could meet the city’s funding needs without being too burdensome on ratepayers. He added they would also look at the feasibility of linking sewer charges to how much water a household uses. “Perhaps those who are using more should get charged more,” he said.
The general sewer plan will now go to the state department of ecology for review and come back to city council for their approval.