An eco-friendly plan to fix the city’s sewage system is going to cost plenty of green.
Philadelphia’s sewers can no longer handle the demands of this urban sprawl. The combined system, which was designed more than a century ago, has reached its limit and threatens to wreak environmental havoc on our water supply. Heavy rains over time have inundated the sewers and when swollen to capacity, they spew raw sewage into streets, streams and basements throughout the city, causing flooding.
It’s a problem environmentalists and property owners have long wrestled with, and now a higher authority, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has stepped in and handed down some commandments to deal with the pressing issue: Thou shalt reverse the devastation wrought by widespread development, and thou shalt do so in 20 years. With limited federal funding.
In response to EPA demands, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) has unleashed an ambitious $1.6 billion proposal to turn city streets into “green” stormwater-conservation machines.
Twenty-one congregates sit raptly in their seats as Joanne Dahme, the Philadelphia Water Department’s public affairs manager, delivers a sermon beneath the Stations of the Cross.
As always, Jesus is trudging along the road to Calvary on the walls of the Mercy Hospital chapel in West Philly, but the gospel that Dahme has come to preach doesn’t concern him—at least not directly.
It’s late August, and Dahme has environmental salvation on her mind.
“We feel like this is a truly remarkable plan,” she says, referring to the “Green City, Clean Waters” proposal. The PWD intends to spend most of the $1.6 billion ($1.01 billion) on green stormwater infrastructure, with the remainder put toward stream corridor restoration ($290 million) and upgrades for wet-weather treatment plants ($320 million). Over the next 20 years, another $3.6 billion will be spent on capital projects for the department’s core services: wastewater collection and water treatment and distribution.
Dahme is vague about any financial burden the plan might have on Philly’s taxpayers, but she does say the EPA wants to “make sure we spend your money the way you want us to.” Though she doesn’t explain how that will impact water rates.
Holding back details about the potential cost increase is probably a good idea considering that Dahme is presenting the plan in one of the poorest parts of Philadelphia, a city that barely escaped financial collapse just a week ago. The last thing residents want to think about during times of economic duress is incremental service fees or taxes eating into their ever-shrinking paychecks. But that’s exactly what will happen if the PWD’s proposal is accepted by the EPA.
According to the plan, the cost to taxpayers would be “at or above the upper limit” of EPA’s median household income affordability criteria. The EPA considers anything above 2 percent of the median income to be a high burden on consumers. This year, Philadelphians are spending 1.1 percent on average, but by 2029, the average wastewater expense will climb to 2.27 percent. Based on the PWD’s “Green City, Clean Waters” proposal, residents would see their yearly wastewater rates increase 230 percent over the next 20 years, from $400 to $1,321—assuming city council signs off on the rate hike.
Even with a median household income of $58,305 in Philadelphia (projected for 2029) the burden would still be high by EPA standards, especially for the city’s poorest 20 percent, whose median income by that time will be $38,000 or less. Under the PWD’s plan, the poorer you are, the more you will spend over time. Overall, wastewater expenses will range from 3.5 to 7 percent for 396,000 people. That is larger than the individual populations of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Minneapolis, Minn.
While the PWD says it plans to defray these capital costs by selling revenue bonds and applying for government grants and loans, in the end, Philadelphians will foot the bill through water fees and federal taxes.
Financially, it’s a lose-lose situation for much of the city. There’s no question that Philadelphia’s sewers desperately need attention, but the only other way to address the problem is to completely overhaul the system while maintaining the PWD’s core services. That would cost the city $19.6 billion—a hefty price tag that makes the “Green City, Clean Waters” proposal seem like a bargain in comparison.
Taking an ends-justifies-the-means stance, the PWD insists the costs will be offset by “more than a 200 percent return on our investment” when environmental and social benefits are factored in. These benefits include energy conservation, cooling shade, air and water quality improvements and increased property values and recreational spaces. Over time, the plan is expected to also bring green jobs to the region.
Going green has quickly become an article of faith for many people. Industrialization has divorced humanity from nature, and some say the threat of global warming has prompted citizens to make expensive sacrifices in order to reverse the effects of the destruction. This reality underpins the phone book-thick proposal that the PWD submitted to the EPA on Sept. 1.
Philadelphia has to clean up its act, whether it can afford to or not. The EPA expects the city to reduce overflows from its combined sewer system by at least 85 percent over the next 20 years. The penalty for noncompliance is steep: The city can be fined $37,500 a day until sewer overflows are reduced—unless the EPA deems the city’s excuse for noncompliance reasonable.
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