The Chemung County Legislature has been advised that major infrastructure upgrades – totaling anywhere from $80 to $100 million dollars – are necessary to provide basic maintenance to our Sewer Districts’ facilities and bring them into compliance with pollution reduction targets set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that will take effect in 2025.

The purpose of this post is to present background information and begin a public discussion on what may turn out to be one of the most significant undertakings the Legislature and County Executive will face this term. I will do my best to publish updated information as it becomes available.

Chemung County Sewer Districts

According to the county website, found here, approximately 80% of the 35,000 households and over 90% of all businesses in Chemung County are served by the Chemung County Sewer Districts. Jointly, they process approximately 18 million gallons of wastewater per day in order to meet current state and federal discharge requirements.

Chemung County’s sewer system is run by two separate districts called the Chemung County Elmira Sewer District and the Chemung County Sewer District No. 1.

The Chemung County Elmira Sewer District services the City of Elmira, the Town of Elmira and portions of the Town of Southport. Its treatment facility, located on Milton Street, opened in 1987 and utilizes a trickling filter/solid contact treatment technology. The collection network encompasses roughly 4,300 acres and services approximately 45,000 people.

Chemung County Sewer District No.1, established in the early 1960’s, serves an area directly north of the City of Elmira including the Village of Elmira Heights, the majority of the Village of Horseheads, and portions of the Towns of Elmira, Horseheads, Veteran and Big Flats. The Sewer District No. 1 collection network consists of approximately 100 miles of mainline sewer that discharges to a trickling filter facility located on Lake Street that opened in 1962.

Sewer Rates

Revenue for the Sewer Districts is generated primarily by user fees and an ad valorem tax, (i.e. a tax for sewer services based on property value similar to property taxes) with state/federal grants and funds appropriated by Chemung County available on occasion.

In a typical year when revenue only comes from user fees and ad valorem tax, the Sewer Districts take on debt in order to balance their budgets. This was the case in 2018:

Matt Hourihan, the former Executive Director for the Sewer Districts, left his position in late summer after being offered a position in North Carolina. Before leaving Hourihan made a startling presentation to the Legislature wherein he showed a number of photographs of parts of the treatment facilities that are in dire need of upgrades. A few examples of the photographs displayed by Hourihan are embedded below:

In Hourihan’s opinion, the condition of the facilities is based in part by the failure of county government to raise sewer rates over the past ten years:

The graph below shows that as of the start of 2019, average sewer expenses in Chemung County were well below those imposed in nearby communities:

A video of Hourihan’s presentation (beginning at approximately 1:19:00) and the slides he showed are both embedded below:

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Hourihan recommended, and the Legislature ultimately approved, an increase in sewer user fees in order to begin addressing these issues. The user fee increases works as follows:

Bonded projects for Treatment Facility Upgrades

In addition to increased user fees, the Legislature was presented with two resolutions from the Sewer Districts to bond $550,000 of upgrades to the Chemung Elmira Sewer District and $600,000 of upgrades to the Chemung Sewer District No. 1, totaling $1,150,000. The reason bonds were exclusively proposed is that the districts do not have any cash in reserves to pay for the upgrades.

Most Legislators along with County Executive Chris Moss and Deputy County Executive Dave Sheen toured both treatment facilities ahead of our vote on the resolutions. In my opinion, the tour confirmed that immediate expenditures are necessary to keep the treatment facilities functioning adequately while we consider our options moving forward as outlined in the sections below.

Moss distributed an overview of what specific upgrades will take place with this bonding at the start of the tour:

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The Legislature unanimously approved both resolutions at last Monday’s meeting.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Unfortunately, these basic facility upgrades are just one small part of what may turn out to be an incredibly significant project.

The Chemung River is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. For the past decade a movement has been underway to improve water quality within the watershed, in part by prevent municipalities and sewer districts located upstream – including the Chemung County Sewer Districts – from releasing certain pollutants into it.

Specifically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) in December 2010 to address ongoing water quality problems caused by excessive nutrients and sediment. The TDML applies to all jurisdictions located within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, including Chemung County.

As part of the TMDL, the EPA assigns each jurisdiction pollution reduction targets for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, all of which must be met by 2025.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation submitted its plans to meet these targets in three phases that it calls “watershed implementation plans”, or “WIPs”. New York’s final WIP was finalized on August 23, 2019 and is found here.

A recent Star Gazette article describing efforts by the Friends of the Chemung River, a local clean water advocacy group, to improve Chesapeake Bay Watershed quality is found here.

On September 7, 2019, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership released a comprehensive report outlining actions the group has taken since it formed in 2009, and important initiatives that need to be addressed going forward. A copy of the report can be found here.

Costs to comply with the Watershed Implementation Plan

Although engineers from the Sewer Districts are unable to provide specific estimates for what it will cost to bring both treatment facilities into compliance with the Phase III WIP at this time, the numbers being suggested are staggering with totals as high as $100,000,000.

A fair portion of the cost is likely to be covered by state and federal grants with the rest covered either through significant increases in sewer use fees or potentially from county taxpayers directly.

At this time the most appropriate place to focus our attention is on cost, i.e. a search for ways to reduce the amount of money necessary to bring us in compliance.

One option that has been discussed for many years in the consolidation of the Milton and Lake Street treatment facilities. Under this scenario, upgrades would not be duplicated and personnel and overhead costs could be reduced.

In 2016 the Sewer Districts hired an outside consultant to help evaluate the issue. In a lengthy report, embedded below, the consultant concluded it consolidation is the best option:

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Along with the capital projects overview, Moss also presented us with a document outlining what consolidation of the facilities would look like in terms of expenditures to comply with the WIP by 2025:

A full copy of what Moss furnished is embedded below:

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Next Steps

At our last meeting I requested a full briefing from the Sewer Districts on the necessary upgrades and our plan going forward as it stands right now. Of note is that the Sewer District Executive Director position remains unfilled, something that is of concern as we wade into a project of this magnitude.

I will provide a subsequent post as information becomes available. As always, if you have any questions or comments, or notice I have stated something inaccurately, please leave a comment here or on the Chemung County Matters Facebook page.

Christina Sonsire