Crumbling Columbia: City's water, sewer infrastructure needs work

By Jack Kuenzie - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Water and sewer service are not exactly the most exciting subjects to delve into when we think about building a better city, but they are very much on the minds of Columbia city leaders these days.

The city is moving at full speed to upgrade its infrastructure, partly to avoid a smackdown from federal regulators. Those efforts are sure to mean higher bills for customers in and outside the city limits.

For centuries, rivers of the Midlands have provided us with food, transportation, power and beauty. For Columbia, water drawn into the city's vast and ever-growing distribution and disposal system has also served as a vital source of revenue.

That leads us to the matter of Olufemi Olulenu's water and sewer bills. "They always tell us, 'oh, it's a little bit of money,'" said Olulenu. "But wait 'til you get your bill. And when you're on limited funds, every penny counts."

Tuesday night, Olulenu was one of several customers speaking out at a public hearing as city council members considered a plan to raise water and sewer rates. The protest was relatively mild, with only three speakers objecting to all or part of a possible five per cent rate hike.

The public outcry might have been somewhat muted because it's become increasingly clear over the past few years that Columbia's systems, which have been around for a very long time, are in dire need of improvements -- expensive, long overdue improvements.

"If there was any other possibility that I could see to fund this additional $100 million bond issue that we need to do, I would certainly have brought that to council's attention," said Columbia City Manager Steve Gantt. "But right now, since the water and sewer fund is funded solely by fees that it charges towards water and sewer, that's the only place that we have to generate that revenue."

Actually, the city is already well along in a plan for major upgrades to water and sewer. This $27 million project at the Columbia Water Works near Riverfront Park is creating a new raw water intake facility.

Close by, the city is making other changes. There are projects on tap for Lake Murray, $47 million worth of work at the Metro Wastewater Plant, improved sewer pump stations, and rehab work on sewer and water lines around the city.

Some activity is aimed at avoiding more disasters like the one in early 2009 that dumped 526,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Broad River. Six months after that, a broken pipe near Lucius Drive spewed another 400,000 gallons of sewage onto land, threatening the Congaree and Columbia Canal.

Those are just a couple examples of hundreds of incidents, many with potential to seriously damage health and the city's economic future. "We have to have clean water," said Ryan Nevius of the group Sustainable Midlands. "We have to have clean water to have public health. We can't afford to destroy our rivers, which brings tourists here. We can't afford to damage our drinking water which gets extracted from our rivers. We must have clean water to have a city that's a viable city."

Columbia's efforts to fix long-neglected problems with its sewage system are motivated by more than altruism. In December 2008, federal and state environmental agents raid the city's wastewater plant near I-77 and Bluff Road. "We're looking for evidence of criminal activity in the form of documentation or the absence of documentation," said Ivan Kikin of the EPA.
The tips that led to the raid turned up no fraud. "None whatsoever, and that case was dismissed," said Gantt.

But investigators also discovered the city's infrastructure was falling apart. With an agreement to upgrade the sewer system still not finalized, city leaders are trying to convince the government Columbia can handle its sewage issues without even more expensive federal mandates.

And then there's a matter of priorities. For years, critics have accused city leaders of siphoning off tens of millions of dollars in water and sewer revenues and spending it on everything but maintenance and new capacity.

Gantt says the city has since seen the light. "I think the focus of our council now is that the funds generated by water and sewer need to be used primarily for water and sewer," said Gantt.

That's some consolation for customers. "They've been robbing this water money forever," said Olulenu. "Don't rob the water money. Let the water money pay for the sewer system."

City council members could determine at their next meeting how many more dollars will have to flow out of ratepayers' bank accounts to fix crumbling Columbia.

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