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CITY EMAILS REVEAL: Conflict, confusion about CoMo sewer bond projects

Data shows bond-funded program to fix flooded basements may be wasting your money

 
COLUMBIA, Mo 11/3/13 (Beat Byte) -- Email and document exchanges between Columbia City Council members, the city manager, and public works engineers reveal confusion and conflict over a major selling point of Tuesday's sewer bond vote:  fixing broken sewer lines in older parts of town that can cause basements to flood.  
 
Through "inflow and infiltration" (I & I), cracked sewer pipes made of brittle clay or rusty iron let stormwater seep into the sewer and sewage seep into groundwater.  Roof gutters illegally connected to the sewer cause similar problems.  Overwhelmed in a heavy rain, broken sewers can backup into basements and spill over manholes. 
 
A 2011 decree from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) requires Columbia to reduce inflow and infiltration.   Public works officials say they have worked to correct the I & I problem since 2008, when voters passed a $77 million sewer bond.  They will use the same remediation methods if voters pass Tuesday's $32.3 million bond

But those methods may be wasting ratepayer money.  Tests performed in a central Columbia pilot study show the problem has worsened, not improved, even with less rainfall.  In the study area, sewer overflows jumped over 100%, from three complaints in 2008 to seven complaints in 2013.   Water-in-basement complaints skyrocketed, up nearly 400%, from three in 2008 to 11 in 2013.   

Engineers collected data from 23 houses on streets in Columbia's First and Fourth Wards:  Aldeah, Walnut, Stewart, Anderson, McBaine, Broadway, Worley, and West Parkway.  

The data "does not support any reduction of I & I in the study area," retired city sewer superintendent Bill Weitkemper emailed City Council members Oct. 24.   "In fact, it appears there may be more of a problem now than before."

But the data are flawed and cannot be used to prove anything, public works engineering manager David Sorrell emailed Weitkemper, a longtime critic of city utility policy.   Sorrell blamed the bad measurements on faulty test equipment. 

"I had the flow meter inspected and the sensor was found to be partially obstructed with debris," he wrote. "The meter was removed, cleaned, calibrated and put back in place in the manhole." 

Weitkemper informed his Council representative, 4th Ward City Councilman Ian Thomas, about the data and Sorrell's response.  The DNR decree, he urged, "requres a much greater I & I reduction than the city has been able to accomplish in the I & I Study Area." 
 
Mr. Thomas and Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, whose 6th Ward is home to many older houses and sewer lines, took the concerns to city manager Mike Matthes.

Matthes "asserts that the City has data proving the pilot program has been successful, so I told him I want to see it," Thomas emailed Weitkemper.   "I also talked to [Mayor] Bob McDavid about this, and he has not yet seen the evidence and wants to." 

But when Thomas and Hoppe met with Matthes last week, the material he gave them had nothing to do with Columbia or the period 2008-2013. 

"Matthes gave us a summary report from Springfield which suggests that Springfield recorded a 34% reduction in I & I after spending $9 million," Thomas emailed Weitkemper, attaching the report.   "Mike argued that we will be spending more than this amount, and therefore should see even more improvement." 

Weitkemper said he was flabbergasted.   The "summary report" Matthes provided was a chicken-scratched page from a 2006 "sewer lateral study" in a different city.      
 
The data problems and irrelevant report have prompted Weitkemper to oppose a bond issue until city officials have a better plan with proven techniques.   "I do not believe we should pass the sewer bond ballot issue on Tuesday," Weitkemper told Thomas.   "It will then be Council's responsibility to examine the available evidence and approve specific interventions." 

If the bond passes, Thomas said he plans to "push for a transparent discussion about the most effective way to use public funds authorized by the sewer bond, to address sewer problems, as well as a transparent evaluation of how or whether we can meet our responsibilities to DNR."
 
 
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