Fort Smith is not the only city facing sewer overflow issues. It’s proving a problem in Van Buren, also.
According to Director of Van Buren Municipal Utilities Steve Dufresne, Fort Smith's northern neighbor is under a consent order by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality because of 108 manhole overflows. The overflows, he said, occurred over a three year period from October 2009 to October 2012 and were self-reported to the ADEQ.
The causes of the overflows, Dufresne said, were the result of a variety of factors.
"We have determined that for our sewer system, those overflows, which were minor during a three year period, but we figure about 10% of those were from inflow and infiltration, or rainfall and wet weather," he said.
Such overflows are similar to the problems that have been occurring in Fort Smith for many decades and has resulted in extended negotiations between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice over the city of Fort Smith's repeated violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
But in Van Buren, Dufresne said the vast majority of the problems are "routine."
"The majority are from routine stoppages from grease, debris or roots in the system," he said. "So we've determined the majority of those occurred because of grease and routine causes. And our plan for ADEQ, what we're anticipating, is we'll submit a plan and it may take them some time to review and either accept or come back and give us further guidelines."
The plan the city's utilities department would submit, Dufresne said, would focus on increasing routine maintenance and inspections to identify problems before overflows occur during dry weather periods.
"On the rain events, we are looking at what type of line replacements (are necessary) to increase capacity and at what cost."
The city utility department must have a plan submitted to ADEQ by January 2015 and he said work is ongoing to study solutions and write the plan. Since so final solution has been yet proposed by the city or approved by ADEQ, Dufresne said it would be difficult to estimate a price for improvements to comply with the consent order.
"What we're planning to submit will not be in the tens of millions (of dollars)," he assured. "But on the maintenance side, for instance, that's where there'll be more of an increase (in cost)."
According to Dufresne, the best estimate he could provide now is "up to $5 million," though he said the number could be lower. Either way, he said rate increases could be a possibility to cover any mandates handed down by the ADEQ.
"We do not have reserves to cover the costs, so yes. We're still looking at finances, but there could be a potential rate increase proposed in mid-2015 or early 2016. I can't get much more definite until ADEQ approves (the plan to address the overflows)," Dufresne said.
And while Van Buren is not dealing with the feds like the city of Fort Smith is, Dufresne said the federal government would be aware of the city's dealings with ADEQ.
"We're dealing with ADEQ, but the way I understand it is once we submit the plan to them, then it will be submitted to the EPA for review and then will be either approved by the ADEQ as is or they could respond back requiring further information or say no, we don't like what you're proposing. Right now, we're trying to decide a timeline for the milestone schedule. That's what Fort Smith has been having issues with. We're looking at options for the schedule and they may or may not approve what we may submit."
A timeline for compliance has not yet been established, though Public Outreach and Assistance Division Chief Katherine Benanati of ADEQ said the city "is to comply with the effluent limitations of its permits by the end of December 2014 and submit to the Department by January 21, 2015 a Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance Manual (CMOM) and a Sanitary Sewer Evaluation Study (SSES)."
Any rate increase proposals that result from the final approved plan associated with the consent order must go through the Van Buren city council for approval by ordinance adoption setting municipal water and sewer rates schedules.