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Home > Community Interest > Sewer Extension Proposed to County Islands > Mesa set to extend its sewer system

Mesa set to extend its sewer system

Reprinted from azcentral.com
By Gary Nelson
The Republic | azcentral.com Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:13 PM

Mesa faces a $100 million bill as it mops up the lingering effects of lower development standards in areas that were built under Maricopa County auspices, in some cases more than 50 years ago.

The money is needed to extend sewer lines to areas now served by septic systems. Once those septic tanks fail, property owners will be required to hook into the city sewer system.

It is the latest, and perhaps most expensive, manifestation of a phenomenon that has hamstrung Valley cities for decades: how to deal with rural or semirural areas that attracted people in search of low-cost living but are now surrounded by or annexed into cities.

“I’m concerned with continuously having to shoulder the burden of paying for bad planning in the past,” City Councilman Scott Somers said recently.

Mesa, which is pockmarked with county islands, appears to be the first Arizona city to launch an aggressive effort to run sewer lines through its entire planning area, regardless of whether the neighborhoods are actually part of the city.

“There is no other parallel in the state that we know of as far as municipalities aggressively pursuing county islands for putting in sewer lines,” said Mark Shaffer, communications director for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

To date, the largest septic-to-sewer retrofit in Arizona happened in Lake Havasu City, which for a time had the dubious honor of being the largest unsewered city in the nation. Voters there approved nearly $500 million in bonds to build a sewer system in 2001 after the state threatened to force homeowners to buy expensive denitrification systems.

State environmental officials said that by then, leaking septic tanks had contaminated five Lake Havasu City wells and the lake, which is part of the Colorado River. Eventually, 22,000 septic tanks were replaced.

Shaffer said other Arizona cities, such as Quartzsite, Yuma, Apache Junction and Bisbee, are replacing septic systems within their incorporated areas.

County-island issues

Mesa has struggled with county-island issues for years.

In meeting after meeting, City Council members have complained that lax county standards have created roads inaccessible to firetrucks, residential lots with questionable water supplies, and other situations incompatible with the quality of life Mesa wants in its planning area.

Last year, council members reconsidered whether to extend water service to county areas but ultimately decided it couldn’t afford it. Mesa doesn’t have the money to offer water service, and it isn’t willing to force the cost — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars — on individual homeowners.

But it’s different with sewers.

The reason: Mesa doesn’t want septic tanks leaking into the aquifer that supplies drinking water for millions of Valley residents.

“What drives this a lot is septic that may create dangers to the environment, to the aquifer,” City Manager Chris Brady said. “It hasn’t happened, but just the potential of that happening is of great concern.”

Septic systems can produce nitrites, a form of nitrogen that can harm humans and animals, foul up riparian ecosystems and feed fecal bacteria. Shaffer said the danger is particularly acute where aquifers are not deep and near perennial flowing water.

Kathryn Sorensen, Mesa’s water-resources director, said engineers developed a scoring system for neighborhoods that contain most of the approximately 24,000 septic systems in Mesa’s planning area. A neighborhood’s age, proximity to city wells and whether it lies inside or outside city limits will help determine how soon it gets city sewer service.

Once the lines are laid, property owners will be required to connect to Mesa’s system when their septic tanks fail.

If the sewer lines have not yet reached their neighborhood, people with failing septic systems will be required to install plumbing compatible with a future sewer hookup, even if they’re allowed in the short term to replace their septic.

County’s role

Although the county issues permits for new septic systems, it does so only after Mesa certifies that a particular property has no access to a sewer line. Once Mesa refuses to issue such a letter, a sewer hookup is mandatory.

People hooking into sewers will be required to pay development-impact fees for wastewater service. But that will fall far short of the real cost.

“The impact fees don’t come close to meeting the demand,” Christine Zielonka, Mesa’s development-services director, said during a council meeting last week. “The impact fees lag way behind what the infrastructure needs are.”

That led Somers, the city councilman who represents the city’s growing southeastern corner, to ask why the city is footing so much of the bill.

“When I bought my house, I paid for that infrastructure to be there,” Somers said. “It’s in my mortgage. Now we have some 50,000 people who are within the municipal planning area who ... are asking the rest of the 440,000 here to pay for the infrastructure to make it cheaper for them to hook up.”

Zielonka acknowledged Somers’ concerns, but she said the full cost of installing sewer lines is “particularly problematic” for single-family residences. “The cost of extending a sewer line, in particular, is extremely expensive.”

Somers chafed at that.

“Some folks who decided to build in the county or own in the county because there are fewer regulations ... are now going to get the benefit of the rest of us paying for their sewer lines to be installed,” he said.

“We felt that this program was a reasonable compromise,” Sorensen told him. “There is a public-health issue involved.”

Somers then asked, “If it’s such a public-health issue, where’s the county? Why is the county not helping lead this? ... You’d think they would get involved in partnering with Mesa in trying to find a solution here that wouldn’t be a fiscal burden to Mesa.”

Sorensen and Zielonka said the county is strapped for money, and Somers admitted that the county also is limited by state law.

“Perhaps I’m blaming the wrong entity,” Somers said. “The counties are bound by what the state Legislature allows them to do. They can’t provide certain services because it’s not within their charter to do so.”

Councilman Dave Richins and the rest of the council endorsed the sewer-conversion program.

“Really from an environmental-protection standpoint, it is the right thing to do,” Richins said.

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