New federal investments alone won't fix aging sewer systems

Four of the state’s larger cities – Jackson, Hattiesburg, Meridian and Greenville – are all under federal consent decrees to stop pollution from their worn down sewer and wastewater systems.

Even though they’ve already spent tens of millions of dollars combined on those facilities in recent years, and even with historic federal infrastructure funding on the horizon, it’s likely those cities will still need more money to comply with orders from the Environmental Protection Agency.

While a battle between the House and Senate over eliminating the income tax has held up progress, lawmakers this week are deliberating how much to spend of its allotted $1.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act on infrastructure repairs.

“In communities with populations that dwindled, access to resources becomes most vital,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville.

In Greenville, the population fell over 30% from 2000 to 2019, according to U.S. Census data, making loans for infrastructure upgrades less viable with the city’s shrinking tax base. Hines said it’s concerning to see “political posturing” over the income tax when there are resources ready to ease the financial burden on his constituents.

Any amount of the Legislature’s ARPA pot can go towards infrastructure. The Senate has passed a proposal to create a grant program of $750 million for cities, counties and rural water associations.

Last Wednesday, the House passed a proposed bill that would create a $400 million grant program for counties and cities to make water, wastewater and stormwater upgrades.

But even with the historic funding, some of Mississippi’s cities may still not have enough.

“ARPA and the bipartisan infrastructure bill will both help Hattiesburg, but the problem is much bigger than what a few pieces of legislation will remedy,” said Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker, who added that cities will be forced to make tough financial decisions to raise their own revenue.

Just as with drinking water, cities have had to shoulder a larger burden of wastewater infrastructure spending over the last few decades. Cities with smaller and poorer tax bases that can’t afford repairs are seeing the effects of underfunding, which shows up at both ends of the system.

“We’re getting so much rainwater that infiltrates the system,” said Walter Williams, who last year retired as Belzoni’s public works director. “So it’s the water that gets in that overworks the pumps. Also, it adds to the problem of people not being able to flush their toilets.”

Aging sewer lines allow more seepage from rain and other stormwater, which can both overwork the treatment plant and block residents’ own lines. In Greenville, where the Mississippi River regularly intrudes into the city’s piping, Mayor Errick Simmons said climate change is adding to the challenge.

“When the rain’s coming and there’s holes in the collection system, people can’t flush like they’re used to,” he said. “So they have backups where the sewage is backing up into their bathtubs.”

Of course on the other side, an overworked system means sending partially treated or raw sewage straight into public bodies of water, injecting pollutants like fecal coliform, nitrogen, or E. coli into the ecosystem.

When the pollution passes a certain threshold, the EPA steps in, forcing cities to take action or face penalties, such as fines. While the agency works with those cities’ leadership to develop long-term spending plans, the road to compliance is expensive.

In Hattiesburg, residents saw their sewer rates go up incrementally from 2016 to 2019, and Barker said the city just last year approved another rate increase.

Despite already spending “well over” $50 million on wastewater and sewer since 2010, the city likely needs another $40 to $50 million to finish the job, Barker said. But the funding needed in Hattiesburg, which has a population of 46,000, is still well below that of other cities.

Greenville, with a population of 31,000, needs $110 million to fully comply with a consent decree from the EPA, Simmons told Mississippi Today, after already spending $50 million that included federal loans. Jackson, the state’s largest city, may need close to $800 million, as the Clarion Ledger reported in 2019.

In Belzoni, Williams said the price tag is around $6 million, a large burden for a city with just over 2,000 people, and where 28% fall below the poverty line.

“You need a good amount of funds, and the city does not generate enough in taxes or sewer rates with the population we have,” he said.

In Greenville, where the poverty rate is 37%, Simmons said funding the $110 million needed from the city alone would mean quadrupling water and sewer bill rates. The city is set to receive $6 million through ARPA, although the mayor is hopeful that the amount could double if a proposed funding match from the Senate passes.

“It’s a huge undertaking to fix this infrastructure problem,” Simmons said. “We’ve been waiting on a comprehensive infrastructure package like this for years and ages, and now we finally got it, and we’re going to make good use of it.”

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