Valdosta Daily Times

February 24, 2013

Time running out as Valdosta wastewater plant deteriorates

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The City of Valdosta is running out of time and options for treating the city’s sewage, as the deteriorating Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant remains in imminent peril of flooding and the city has to find a way to pay for its relocation.

With an eye to the sky for the next several days, city officials are preparing for the worst as forecasts call for several inches of rain. The danger, however, is from communities upriver from the city, and as their creeks and rivers overflow, the water will rise in local waterways for the next several days.

“We are at the bottom of the watershed,” said City Manager Larry Hanson. “There’s nothing we can do to control the water coming our way.”

The massive flood in 2009 brought the long-neglected Withlacoochee plant to the forefront of the city’s issues, as water overtook several structures on the low-lying property and threatened to completely overwhelm the systems, which would have been devastating for city residents and businesses.

“The Withlacoochee plant serves two-thirds of the city, including the hospital, the college and 18,000 homes, in addition to most of our commercial businesses,” said Hanson.

The city was able to build an earthen berm to protect the main portion of the plant, which has since been reinforced. It was a temporary solution and one that will not last forever.

Meanwhile, the 40-year-old plant has been deteriorating for years. Several portions of the plant are no longer in use as City Utilities Director Henry Hicks said they are no longer safe to use due to massive corrosion. Showing a large clarifier which was taken offline to clean and found to be in such bad shape it has been permanently sidelined, Hicks replied, “Out of sight, out of mind,” to the question of how the plant has reached its current decaying condition.

Regardless of the reasons for the plant’s condition, the problem remains that it has to be fixed, and therein lies an even greater issue.

“After the 2009 flood, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) redefined the flood plains, and it’s now in the 100-year flood zone. We are prohibited from building or making major repairs to the plant in its current location,” said Hanson.

The city purchased land on much higher ground less than a mile from the current site on Wetherington Lane, in preparation for moving the plant. They applied to FEMA for grant funds to move and rebuild the plant, requesting in excess of $90 million, only to be turned down three times.

“FEMA officials even helped draft the proposal and we were still denied,” said Hanson.

That now leaves the city with four options, said Valdosta Mayor John Gayle, none of which are optimal.

“We can try to get more money from SPLOST, we can raise property taxes, we can raise rates and we can try to pass a MOST,” Gayle said.

SPLOST was defeated in the last election and can be placed back on the ballot in November. However, the city has to eliminate several large projects from their list in order to find the funds for the plant. Hanson said the bare-bones cost for the plant and the accompanying extensive force main project is $52 million, so in addition, the city must ask for a larger portion from the county.

“We are currently in discussions with the county about SPLOST and are negotiating to get about $6 to 10 million more,” said Gayle.

Gayle said the city cannot raise property taxes and the rates high enough to raise the capital needed for the project, or even to repay a loan, so the only other option is a MOST — Municipal Option Sales Tax.

A MOST would allow the city to collect a one-cent sales tax for four years from businesses in the city limits and can only be used for a water-sewer project. The tax would also have to be placed on a ballot to be voted on by city residents. Understanding that voters would most likely not approve both SPLOST and MOST, city officials say it would be their last resort. In order to even get as far as a vote, the local legislative delegation dropped House Bill 403 to amend the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.

“Currently, Atlanta is the only city in the state with a MOST,” said Hanson. “The bill would amend the code to allow smaller municipalities to collect the tax by setting different limits on capacity and making them eligible if they are in a Presidential Disaster area.”

The bill states that only cities with an average wastewater flow of not less than 85 million gallons per day, or cities subject to an order of a federal or state agency or court to improve its water and sewer infrastructure and is located in a disaster area as designated by the President of the United States would be eligible for the tax. It has to pass both the House and Senate this year for the city to put it on a referendum.

Hanson said the city believes action is imminent from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its state arm, the Environmental Protection Division. If served with a consent order, the city faces large fines and a strict timeline to rebuild the plant.

“We’re doing the best we can right now to keep the plant running and to keep the water from overwhelming it, but we no longer have a choice. We have to move and rebuild the plant,” said Hanson.