SMITHFIELD — Along with their Johnston County neighbors, Smithfield residents will see their sewer rates increase next month. But cracked and aging sewer lines could cost residents even more in the years ahead.
The town currently charges residents $6.03 per 1,000 gallons of sewer. Last month, as part of the town’s 2013-2014 budget, the town council approved a 15-cent increase to keep pace with an increase approved by county commissioners. (The county treats Smithfield’s sewage.) The increase will go into effect next month.
But Smithfield public utilities director Earl Botkin said the increase would not be enough to cover the cost of treating rainwater that seeps into cracked sewer lines.
About 38 percent of the wastewater treated by the town is storm water or groundwater. That unnecessarily drives up the cost of treatment.
Water seeping into a sewer system is called infiltration, and it’s a problem facing communities across the country. Botkin said he’s heard of cities with older systems facing infiltration rates of 50 to 75 percent.
“It’s a problem all sewage-collection systems have,” he said. “It’s not unique to Smithfield at all.”
At the last Smithfield Town Council meeting, Botkin asked councilmen to raise sewer rates by 24 cents per 1,000 gallons – 15 cents to cover the county rate increase and another nine cents to cover the cost of treating that rainwater.
Council members said no.
“We’re covering our costs now,” said Councilman Andy Moore. “If we match our increases from the county, why wouldn’t we cover them (with the raise)?”
While declining the additional nine cents, council members told Botkin to come back with additional justifications for his requested increase. Councilman Emery Ashley said he wanted to keep rates where they are but would consider raising them in the future.
“I’m inclined to just pass the 15 cents along,” Ashley said. “If it becomes a situation, we just raise it to 24 later.”
This month, Botkin sent a memo to council members explaining his request.
In short, he said, money from sewer customers is not covering all of the town’s treatment costs. The town is paying the county to treat about 628 million gallons of sewer annually, he said; customers are paying only for the 391 million gallons they use. The 237 million-gallon difference is because of infiltration.
In the memo, Botkin wrote that the town’s water and sewer system makes enough money to treat the infiltration. Ashley said he’d like for it to stay that way. “I think the water and sewer fund makes enough money,” he said. “I don’t think the water and sewer fund should be a profit center.”
But the past couple of months have been unusually wet, with the town’s sewer bill about $75,000 higher than usual. That could erode the cash cushion in the water and sewer fund, Botkin said.
“We’ll have to see how the rest of the year is,” he said. “If it’s dry, we certainly would not have as much (infiltration).”
In the past decade, Botkin said, the town has been working incrementally on repairing its sewer lines, and the results are in the numbers. During the 2007 drought, the town had more total wastewater flow than it has had this year despite the rain, he said.
Councilman Perry Harris said the town needs to focus on fixing the leaks that allow infiltration. “If our sewer lines are leaking, why don’t we have a big project to fix them?” he asked.
Botkin said a major overhaul could alleviate the problem. “I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of it completely … but you could get rid of a lot of it,” he said.