City seeks to remedy problems without spending for new plant
SANGER — Sewer overflows have occurred more frequently in recent years, state records show, and Sanger officials blame an aging sewer system and decaying sewer lines.
Sanger has reported at least 40 sewer overflows to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 2007, according to records obtained through an open records request.
More than half of those incidents occurred in 2012 and 2013.
The city is working on resolving the issue and is in the process of issuing bonds to help catch up with maintenance.
“I think the wastewater issue is a classic example of a growing pain that each city deals with,” Mayor Thomas Muir said. “It’s one of a constant, complex juggle of issues that isn’t easy to find the answer to, mainly because the problem is underground, where we can’t see the answer.”
Documents from TCEQ show Sanger has received multiple violation notices for failing to prevent a wastewater overflow that might affect human health or the environment.
From March 29, 2007, to May 21, 2009, there were 10 overflows that discharged more than 67,460 gallons of wastewater to or adjacent to surface water in the city, according to the records.
An analysis conducted in 2010 by KSA Engineers reported that Sanger’s wastewater system had “several deficiencies,” including insufficient capacity for some of its wastewater lines.
A new treatment plant will resolve many of Sanger’s wastewater issues, officials said, but right now, officials want to replace lines and delay spending $20 million to build a new plant.
The city hopes to postpone building a new treatment plant by replacing and doubling the capacity of some of Sanger’s oldest sewer lines.
In the last seven years, some of the city’s problems have manifested as sewage overflow and spills — sometimes flowing over onto residential properties.
City Manager Mike Brice said the main problem is that rain runoff and groundwater is flowing into the sewer system through cracks and openings in the sewer lines, causing the system to take in more water than it can handle.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “We’re hoping that by replacing lines and possibly expanding the wastewater plant, we can avoid issuing massive debt to construct a new one.”
Wasterwater system history
In 1988, the Texas Water Development Board released a water and wastewater study master plan for Denton County municipalities that outlined how officials should maintain infrastructure through 2010.
The master plan projected population trends and growth, and Sanger was projected to grow from 2,574 residents in 1986 to 14,600 by 2010.
Sanger officials had no plans to expand wastewater infrastructure at the time, but according to the study, officials recommended that the city either build a new treatment plant or connect to a regional system by 2010.
A new plant was to be constructed using the property taxes from the projected boom when the time came.
But the boom never arrived, and neither did the money.
Nearly 30 years later Sanger still treats water with an aging system and has a population that’s barely doubled its 1986 population — at only half of what was projected.
Today, city staff members said Sanger is operating on a fixed budget that allows for limited maintenance.
Officials said they hope to spur commercial and industrial development to add to Sanger’s tax base, which would allow the city to complete more maintenance projects.
“We have money allocated for wastewater maintenance, but it’s not enough to fix everything we need to fix,” Brice said. “We keep falling further behind with what we need to accomplish.”
In their 2010 analysis, KSA Engineers recommended that the city add a new plant by 2015 and expand the sizes of multiple sewer lines.
Officials hope to delay adding a new plant as long as they can, but residents aren’t sure how much longer the city can hold out, citing the increased frequency of sewer overflows.
A few residents accused city officials of failing to plan ahead.
But officials argue that the changes in the economy and slow growth has driven the city to make tough choices in determining how to prioritize needs and allocated funds until the economy recovers.
Sanger resident Joe Falls has been skeptical of the city’s efforts to make repairs to the sewer system, regularly appearing in City Hall to voice his irritation to council members and the city manager.
Falls has a city-owned waste treatment facility on his property and in March 2012, heavy rainfall caused the system to overflow onto his property.
“[The city] isn’t acting quickly enough. Until they act, I’m just waiting for another thunderstorm to roll through,” he said. “And when it does, I’m going to have this problem again. Just wait.”
According to a TCEQ investigator’s report, an estimated 5,000 gallons of wastewater spilled over onto Falls’ property, but Falls believes it was a lot more.
The overflow on Falls’ property was just one of a dozen such spills in 2012.
Because city officials recognized the problems with the wastewater system, they entered the TCEQ’s Sanitary Sewer Overflow Initiative, a TCEQ spokesman said.
The state’s water code defines an overflow as an unauthorized discharge of untreated water.
The state’s initiative is designed to reduce the number of overflows and to address overflows before they harm human health, safety or the environment and before they become enforcement issues.
The city must report every overflow, no matter the size. Since joining the initiative in 2009, Sanger has had 27 overflow incidents, with some spills ranging from 50 gallons up to 10,000 gallons.
City’s response and improvements
City officials have publicly said that solving all of Sanger’s sewer issues would require about two years to finish, with the city taking on a sizable amount of debt.
To delay incurring massive debt, Brice laid out a long-term plan during a City Council meeting earlier this month, and he hopes to start relieving some of the city’s infrastructure issues this year.
He proposed spending $8.7 million over 10 years to improve roads, water lines and sewer lines.
Brice told the council the city needs $2.6 million of that for sewer upgrades.
Brice said $1.3 million would be used to repair inflow and infiltration issues and the rest would be used to extend lines along Interstate 35.
The city expects to issue about $4 million in certificates of obligations to cover the costs.
City staff members plan to increase sewer rates and property taxes to pay off the bonds over a 20-year period.
Brice said he hopes the improvements will address most of the city’s issues with inflow and infiltration — when groundwater or rainwater enters the sewer system through faulty pipes and reaches the treatment plant.
If enough water flows into the system, it can cause the plant to reach its limits.
Much of the city’s old sewer infrastructure uses clay piping, which can become brittle over time and crack, Muir said.
“Most of the city uses this clay pipe, and ... that was the technology at the time,” he said. “What’s happening isn’t anyone’s fault. There’s no way to plan for the sudden changes in the economy and how priorities are shifted. The important thing is that we’re doing what we can to address things now.”
The city is planning to study its inflow and infiltration this spring to identify the most troubled areas.
“From that, I’m hoping we can fix the [inflow and infiltration] and improve the condition of our system,” Brice said.
Bonds for the projects could be issued as soon at this summer, he said.
According to TCEQ, most of Sanger has avoided any type of citation from the state because of the city’s enrollment in the Sanitary Sewer Overflow Initiative.
However, TCEQ officials have found more than just waste overflow violations during previous onsite investigations.
TCEQ investigator Karen Smith made an unannounced visit to Sanger on Valentine’s Day to investigate a complaint of a sewer overflow south of the Walmart Distribution Center.
“We knew of the spill before anyone made a complaint and before Karen made the visit. I sent the report to the TCEQ myself,” said Jim Bolz, the city’s water and wastewater supervisor.
Bolz estimated that about 3,000 gallons overflowed from a manhole.
According to city records, the city public works officials had reported the spill to TCEQ a week earlier.
But during the onsite visit, Smith found waste, rags and debris left over from overflow, a TCEQ spokesman said.
Sanger was cited for failure to adequately clean up the overflow.
Cleanser was applied to disinfect the area, according to the report, but city officials told Smith that the spill was not thoroughly cleaned because of wet conditions from recent rainfall.
The line was clogged by rags flushed by employees from the distribution center, city officials said.
City officials have since met with Walmart and requested that they stop flushing rags.
Smith requested that the city assess the condition and size of the line to prevent a repeat occurrence.
During the same visit, the TCEQ investigator said there were “several deteriorating manholes” along the same sewer line.
The city was ordered to repair the manholes and make the needed improvements.
Brice said the sewer line extending from Walmart is causing most of the issues and Sanger has plans to replace the line.
Muir said the condition of the wastewater system is one of the city’s top priorities.
“It has definitely given us the most problems,” he said. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner and it’s constantly looking at us in the eye.”
A statewide issue
Sanger is one of many cities with aging infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The association grades the conditions of infrastructure all over the country, and Texas’ wastewater systems earned a C-minus, based on the conditions of its treatment plants.
According to the organization, Texas is about $11.15 billion behind in wastewater improvements.
“As a state, we do a poor job of thinking of our infrastructure as a long-term investment,” said Crespin Guzman, executive director of the association’s Texas section. “We can either invest in our future now or pay even more later.”
Guzman said the state should create additional funding programs to develop and improve failing wastewater systems in disadvantaged and fixed low-income communities.
During the open session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, House Speaker Joe Straus told lawmakers that water issues will be among the top issues on his agenda.
According to a statement from Straus’ office, Texas’ smaller municipalities are facing problems with water and wastewater infrastructure that is aging and needs serious maintenance or replacement.
So far, the state has yet to pass legislation addressing the matter.
“Believe me, I would like to fix everything overnight, but we can’t,” Muir said. “We don’t want to issue debt to buy things we can’t maintain. We issue debt to take care of things that have a long-lived use.”
Public Works Director Robert Woods said Sanger’s wastewater system has the capacity to serve its residents, but he admitted that many sewer lines must be replaced.
“The problem isn’t the plant,” he said. “It’s the pipes. We’re doing everything we need to do to address the problem.”
Earlier this month, Sanger awarded $300,000 to civil engineering firm Pacheco Koch to engineer and design wastewater lines along the east side of I-35 from South Belz Road to View Road and on the west side of the interstate from Belz toward FM455.
Sanger also received a $275,000 block grant to replace deteriorated sewer lines, through the Texas Community Development Block Grant Program.
The 2012 grant will cover the cost of 12 manholes and a sewer pipeline along the east side of the city.
“Money is being spent and we’re taking the necessary steps to get this done while being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Muir said.
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.