Voters in the Metropolitan District Commission's member municipalities - Hartford, East Hartford, West Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Windsor, Bloomfield and Rocky Hill - are strongly urged to vote yes on a proposed $800 million first-phase upgrade to the regional sewer system that will be on the ballot Nov. 7.
The so-called Clean Water Project will take 17 years to complete and cost a total of $1.6 billion in today's dollars.
There's no question that the work must be done. More than a billion gallons of excess sewage from Greater Hartford are dumped into the Connecticut River and neighboring waterways every year. Backups of untreated sewage into homes in Hartford, West Hartford, Newington and Rocky Hill have been commonplace for generations.
At the core of the backups and overflows is the fact that much of Greater Hartford's antiquated sewer system - built in the mid-19th century - carries both sanitary sewage and storm water through a single pipe that can no longer absorb the sewage and runoff.
If approved, the project anticipates building separate underground conduits for sanitary sewage and rainwater throughout parts of Hartford, where the mixture of the two from surrounding towns converges.
MDC officials also propose to use some of the first-phase money to expand the agency's sewage treatment plant in Hartford's South Meadows, the final destination point for the sewage. And some would go to modifying the MDC's Rocky Hill plant to handle peak flows during storms.
Estimates show that the eight municipalities served by the MDC could see their costs for sewer usage, which are factored into each homeowner's property-tax bill, double in about five years and quadruple in 10 years to pay for the upgrade. There is no escaping that possibility, although agency officials say they hope to reduce the impact by seeking state and federal grants to pay for part of the cost.
The consequences of voting down the proposal are worse. The dumping of untreated sewage into waterways is a public health threat prohibited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Under pressure from both agencies to stop the practice, the MDC was fined $850,000 and signed a consent order earlier this year committing itself to a 17-year plan that would eliminate the overflows.
The MDC's charter requires that property owners vote on the plan. If they reject it, MDC officials say, the federal EPA would likely build the project anyway with no input from residents, who would be billed for the work.
Some residents and officials in the inner-ring suburbs have been making their support of the project conditional on changing the way that the district charges for sewer services. The current formula, tied to grand list growth, property tax receipts and population, is embedded in the agency's charter, which only the General Assembly can change.
Property-rich towns say they bear a disproportionate share of the cost per household and would prefer a simplified formula based on water consumption.
Holding the project hostage to changes in the billing method, however, is unwise, especially considering the dilapidated condition of the sewer system. Voting down the project would be a mistake that would jeopardize Greater Hartford's health and economic future.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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