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Federal sewer regulations will mean higher water bills for Aurorans

Updated: June 20, 2011 8:20PM

Aurora residents will soon see a new line item on their water bills and few more dollars in the total.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that the city upgrade its sewer system to meet federal standards regarding combined sewer overflows. The mandate will cost the city $120 million for upgrades over the next 20 years.

Residents will be charged on their city utility bill about $1.02 per month for the next two years. That will cover the city’s bond for two years’ worth of projects, Chief of Staff Carie Anne Ergo said.

On water bills, the fee will be called “EPA-Mandated Long-Term Control Plan Fee.” The fee will be reassessed every two years according to the city’s need, Ergo said.

Aurora is one of 775 communities in nation that has a combined sewer system, which carries both storm water and sanitary sewage within the same divided pipe. Nearly all industrial communities built between 1850 and 1925 have these combined sewer systems, Ergo said.

During large rainfalls, stormwater overwhelms the capacity of the pipes, and combined sewer systems are designed to discharge the overflow into the Fox River or Indian Creek before the water has been treated. Large rainfalls can also cause sewage to back up into streets and basements, she said.

“We have to deal with the fact that we have these combined sewer overflows,” Ergo said. “We don’t set the rules — the EPA does.”

About 100 other Illinois communities have similar systems. Chicago and Joliet also have combined sewer systems, according to Ken Schroth, Aurora director of public works.

The city’s current plan to address the EPA mandate is being reviewed by EPA officials, according to Ergo. The plan was submitted in April 2010.

Under the plan, the city will expand the capacity of the current combined sewer system, separate sewers by installing new storm sewers, add green infrastructure to remove stormwater from the sewer system and construct a new treatment facility on the city’s southwest side, according to Schroth.

“Everyone will benefit when we don’t have overflows,” Ergo said. “This will also allow the city to address local concerns like basement and street backups.”

Ergo said it is frustrating that old industrial towns like Aurora are being mandated to pay for fixes that will benefit the entire area.

Aurora has made about $50 million in improvements to prevent sewer backups and overflows since 2005. The number of combined sewer overflow discharges has decreased from 1,100 in 1983 to 198 in 2010.

The total cost of improvements is estimated at $325 million, with Fox Metro Water Reclamation District responsible for about $205 million of the cost under the current plan.

Communities that have refused to cooperate with the EPA mandate have faced heavy enforcement actions, Schroth said. Evansville, Ind., was required to pay $490,000 in penalties and $4 million in environmental projects — in addition to the cost of their long-term control plan. Aurora officials will be urging legislators to provide grants or low-interest loans to communities tasked with EPA mandate, she said.

Water bill increase

The new EPA fee comes on top of a proposed water rate hike approved on Tuesday by the Finance and Buildings, Ground and Infrastructure committees. If passed by the full council, the increase for the average residential household would be about $1.39 per month.

City officials are proposing a 4.77 percent hike as of July 1, 2011, and a 4.8 percent increase in 2012.

Ergo said that for the past several years, the city has adjusted its rates for water and sewer service moderately each year to avoid large, irregular increases. The increases are necessary because of increased operating costs and the need to maintain sewer and water infrastructure, according to Schroth.

“We’ve tried to keep increases between 2 and 5 percent,” Ergo said.

City Council will discuss water rates as a committee of the whole next Tuesday

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