Thu September 6, 2012
When it comes to stormwater service, MSD is facing a perfect 'storm' of problems
The remnants of Hurricane Isaac ended a summer-long dry spell. But for some customers of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, it meant flooded backyards and basements.
For decades, MSD funded its stormwater service with a patchwork of different taxes, which allowed the agency to meet its regulatory requirements. But repairs were a different story.
Some parts of the region were flush with cash for capital projects. It took others months or years to accumulate enough funds for even basic repairs.
Earlier this year, a state appeals court struck down a potential solution - a fee based on how much water a property could absorb. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is pending.
For now, MSD has gone back to its old taxing districts - allowing the lingering problems to get worse.
Downpours like the ones from Hurricane Isaac mean a wet basement for Carither Hite.
"It's as I go downstairs, right at the foot of the steps, and then up underneath the steps, as well as in the laundry room," she says.
Hite's home, on Evans Ln. in Cool Valley, sits at the bottom of a hill, 18 feet lower than Emerling Street to the south. And the developer that built Emerling in the 1920s didn’t put in storm sewers. So the run-off rolls downhill - flooding the basements and eating away the backyards of Hite and her neighbors.
"I figure one day, maybe I'll wake up, and the house will be sitting out in the middle of the lane," Hite says.
Cool Valley turned to engineer Bob Garegnani to come up with a solution.
"We'd put a wall along here, catch the water behind the wall with a swale or a ditch, and then put inlets all the way at the end so the water would run down there, go into the inlets, and tie into the storm sewer out there," Garegnani says as we stand in Hite's backyard. "Then you would get rid of all these trees and put in slope stabilization so it doesn't erode."
Stuck in limbo
Garegnani's $600,000 solution has the seal of approval from the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, which makes sure all stormwater work - even work done by other entities - meets federal and state regulations.
But there's a big component missing - money.
"We're basically on an emergency basis," says MSD chief engineer Brian Hoelscher. "If it's really a danger to our stakeholders or our residents, we'll go out and we'll find a way to find some emergency funding, but there's no kind of regular maintenance or even routine emergency dollars available for the system."
Cool Valley mayor Viola Murphy says the city has twice come within steps of securing money for the work - and twice, it's fallen through.
"The residents know the city has fought tooth and nail," she says. "They see that the administration is constantly try to work on those issues. And we have their support. They're frustrated, don't get me wrong, but they do see that the leadership here is constantly trying to make improvements."
But Murphy says she sees the weather getting "a little different" - and doesn't want it to be a tragedy that spurs MSD to action.
It was the potential threat to life that in 2009 forced MSD into doing a major creek stabilization project in west St. Louis County.
The force of water whipping around a bend in Fishpot Creek had carved a 25-foot cliff behind five homes on Pepperdine Ct. At one point, the erosion came within 12 feet of Ron Cox's back door.
"We almost got the house paid off, but we were wondering, is it going to be off the side?" he says. "I mean, I'd have dreams like it's falling off the creek."
To solve the problem, MSD had to borrow money from a taxing district with a large surplus of capital dollars. It used money from the impervious fee - the one based on the ability of property to absorb water that was rejected by the court - to pay back that loan. But since the court threw out the fee, that option's no longer available.
Hoelscher says the agency is monitoring other areas of erosion and ponding. He says the problems aren’t as bad as at Pepperdine Ct. - yet.
Some cities find ways to take matters into their own hands. In 2007, Sunset Hills residents approved Proposition P, a half-cent sales tax, which generated $1.1 million for stormwater work. The majority of the revenue from the sales tax went to parks projects, and city engineer Anne Lamitola says that made it easier to sell to voters.
"Stormwater isn't necessarily something that's as fun or glamorous as some of the parks projects," she said.
And that’s another one of the problems facing MSD. So far, the courts have ruled that the impervious fee is a tax, and therefore must be approved by voters. Spokesman Lance LeComb says if the Supreme Court agrees, or doesn't take the case, the agency will be fighting a knee-jerk opposition to taxes in an effort to get the funding it needs.
"Another challenge with stormwater is that the problem geographically is quite spread out," he said. "Not everyone is impacted in the exact same way, but those who are impacted are impacted very severely. So it's almost a little, you have to make a vote for the community."
The problem is complicated by the fact that MSD just went to the voters in August for $945 million in bonds to deal with a lawsuit over wastewater. By law, that money can't be used for stormwater - they're two separate utilities.
And any of the stormwater solutions will take time – making problems like Carither Hite’s wet basement that much more expensive to solve.
Remnants of Isaac