It is no surprise that Saturday’s news of upcoming projects at Bolivar’s wastewater treatment plant — and in turn, potential sewer rate increases — caused a firestorm of criticism for city leaders over the weekend.
First, we need to be perfectly clear. The city has no immediate plans to raise sewer rates.
But, with recent water and sewer rate hikes in January 2019, the sting Bolivar’s residents feel when opening those monthly utilities bill is still too fresh and too new for many.
However, when anger about this issue boils to the surface, we urge people to remember one thing — while the pain is fresh, this issue most certainly is not.
The path to where the city is today started in 1998, when Bolivar’s Piper Creek, near the city’s wastewater treatment plant at Rt. D and Mo. 32, was placed on the Missouri Clean Water Commission’s 303(d) list of impaired waterways.
According to the 1998 report, the half-mile creek was cited for non-filterable residue from Bolivar’s wastewater treatment plant. It was given high priority for analysis, scheduled for follow-up in 2005.
By 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an Administrative Order for Compliance on Consent, which required the city to reduce inflow and infiltration — or the amount of ground and storm water leaking into sewer pipes — by submitting a plan of action for elimination of sanitary sewer overflows, bypasses and backups.
This order required the city to create a continuing improvement plan, identifying short- and long-term capital investment projects, as well as operation and maintenance activities.
Three years later, in 2010, the EPA approved a total maximum daily load — the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards — for Bolivar’s Piper Creek and Town Branch.
The maximum load imposed low phosphorus and nitrogen limits the city says are technologically unachievable.
In recent years, the situation took an interesting turn.
The City of Bolivar sued the EPA in October 2016, challenging the total maximum daily load.
In April of last year, the federal court issued an order staying the city’s lawsuit against EPA for two years, giving the city the chance to seek a variance with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Clean Water Commission.
Once in place, a variance would let the city deviate from state rules or requirements as long as they don’t pose unreasonable risks to humans or the environment.
The board’s been working with HDR Engineering in Nebraska to draft a variance since October 2018.
In the city’s most recent board meeting, the information HDR presented was both intricate and gut-wrenching. Capital costs for variance projects to meet EPA standards ranged from $2.5 million to $91.1 million.
Over the course of these years, a plethora of city leaders — including multiple mayors, city administrators and aldermen — have come face-to-face with this issue.
This is nothing new.
Talking about inflow and infiltration issues in May 2016, in the heart of the city’s struggle, former City Administrator Ron Mersch told the BH-FP the city’s sewer collection system had been neglected, and “the need for maintenance catches up with you.”
"It's easy to ignore sewers, but we can't ignore them anymore," he said.
Current city leaders certainly aren’t ignoring them now.
With millions of dollars of improvement projects over recent years — and the promise of searching for creative solutions to answer the wastewater drama once and for all — they aren’t ignoring the sewers.
They’re simply playing the hand they were dealt.