June 19, 2024

Floods and resident feedback force Newton to evaluate sewer solutions sooner

Proposed stormwater utility rate for households would increase 5% each year for 5 years

Floodwaters on May 21 rush through an overflowed Cherry Creek through Westwood Golf Course near Newton. The lower areas of the course were completely flooded, and the waters eventually overtook a number of homes in the nearby Lambs Grove.

Newton Public Works Director Joe Grife was already planning on speaking with city council sometime this year about a potential stormwater utility rate increase, but what he was not planning on was a devastating flood that further emphasized why the city’s storm sewer system needs improvements.

In a presentation to council members last week, Grife explained the rate increase would be 5 percent per year for five years (25 percent increase in total).

The stormwater utility was first adopted in October 2020, and the city started collecting fees the very next year at $4 per equivalent residential unit (ERU). Since then the ERU rate climbed to $4.50, and it generates an average monthly revenue of $46,500. The utility is included on residents’ water bills.

Here are the proposed increases to the stormwater utility rates:

• First increase: $4.73 ERU, an average monthly revenue of $48,829.

• Second increase: $4.97 ERU, an average monthly revenue of $51,270.

• Third increase: $5.22 ERU, an average monthly revenue of $53,834.

• Fourth increase: $5.48 ERU, an average monthly revenue of $56,525.

• Fifth increase: $5.75 ERU, an average monthly revenue of $59,352.

Currently, the city’s stormwater utility balance is $516,000. However, the city has earmarked more than $413,000 in storm sewer projects. When the city is not paying for projects out of that funding source, crews are conducting a lot of storm sewer work. The average intake replacement costs $9,000 to do in-house.

In addition to installing new intakes, the city has also replaced undersized existing storm sewers, made new manholes and constructed regional detention basins. The total estimated costs for the top five storm sewer projects in the city is more than $16.96 million.

Moving forward, Grife said individual projects will be prioritized by staff to be included in future capital improvement plans. The current ERU rate will stay in effect unless changed by ordinance. The city’s recommendation right now is for council to approve the proposed rate increases.

The action will appear on the June 17 city council agenda. If approved, the rate increase could go into effect October 2024, January 2025 or July 2025.

RESIDENTS WANT ACTION AFTER RECENT FLOOD EXPERIENCES

Several residents experienced sewer backups in their flooded basements during the May 21 flood and heavy rain event.

Tiffany Thomas, a Newton resident, urged the mayor and the city council at their June 3 meeting to take action to prevent or mitigate sewer backups in the future. Sewer backups not only disrupt daily life, she said, but they also pose a health risk and financial burdens for households in town.

“Imagine waking up to your basement flooded with raw sewage, causing damage to personal belongings and creating an unsanitary environment,” she said. “This is the reality many of us and our neighbors have faced several times. The (I&I) program, while commendable, is not sufficiently addressing the issue.”

For instance, Thomas said she has been taking advantage of the I&I program by installing tiling and a sump pump in her basement. She also installed a sewer backflow valve. However, she argued these measures have not been enough to stop the city’s sewer from backing up into her basement.

“We need to reassess the effectiveness of the I&I program and explore additional resources to tackle the root causes of sewer backups,” Thomas said.

To her, these backups are indicative of underlying problems with the city’s sewer infrastructure. She suggested Newton needs a new comprehensive assessment of its sewer capacity and the condition of its system as a whole. Thomas said city council members have a duty to prioritize the well-being of the community.

“Let us work together to invest in long-term solutions that will safeguard the health, safety and quality of life of all residents,” Thomas concluded.

STAFF PROVIDE PRESENTATION ON SEWER SYSTEMS

At the same council meeting that Thomas spoke about sewer backups, Grife and utilities director Jody Rhone delivered a presentation going over the sanitary sewer and storm sewer during heavy rain events. Rhone spoke specifically about the inflow and infiltration (I&I) program and challenges the city’s system faces.

Rhone said Newton has more than 94 miles of sanitary sewer inside the city. For more than a decade, the city has been making a conscious effort to reduce inflow and infiltration, which occurs when stormwater enters sewer pipes through cracks, leaky seals or faulty/illegal connections.

The city has led smoke tests and dye tests to identify cross connections between the storm sewer and sanitary sewer systems. Rhone said the city ended up rebuilding close to 120 leaky storm sewer intakes. Then the city started a program that paid an inspector to do sump pump inspections in homes.

Which also helped the city identify illegal sump pump connections. These connections can have a detrimental affect on the system as a whole.

“One sump pump is the equivalent of 40 or more houses of normal sanitary discharge,” Rhone said of illegal sump pumps that connect to the sanitary sewer. “So if you get one house per neighborhood that’s doing this, it’s like another subdivision added to the sanitary sewer system.”

REDUCING I&I BECOMES COMPLICATED, BUT SOLUTIONS ARE THERE

The city is developing other ways to reduce inflow and infiltration. For instance, the water pollution control plant regularly allocates funds bi-annually for manhole restorations and sewer lining projects. Rhone said the city is also looking to implement future ideas, like upping sump pump inspections.

Rhone said these inspections would occur during water meter radio read installations. The city can also enact an ordinance to require sewer backflow preventers on new construction or during any sewer line replacement, or require water and sewer service lines to be inspected at the time of property sale.

Why can’t the city just upsize its sewers? Rhone said when it comes to sanitary sewers that can prove challenging. If the city upsizes its pipes too much during low flow conditions (which is what the city has had for the past six years), the water runs away and it does not carry the solids.

“So for the other 99.99 percent of the time the sanitary sewer will not work if it’s oversized,” Rhone said. “You will have constant backups from clogging and then you will also have that sulfuric acid or hydrogen sulfide smells.”

Other ways to reduce inflow and infiltration will require residents to be proactive, too. Regular maintenance will be necessary.

“I think it needs to be a holistic approach,” Rhone said.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.