I-Team: Money, topography to blame as Metropolitan Sewer District tries to cope with storms

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-30 12:52:08-04

CINCINNATI -- Donte and Regina Brooks said they didn't have time to move anything before a surge of water inundated their custom-designed basement.

Storms deluged the Tri-State on Aug. 28, 2016, causing sewers to back up across Hamilton County. Six inches of rain fell in just four hours, according to the National Weather Service. Like thousands of others, the Brooks family ended up with a basement flooded with sewage.

"It was about a foot high of water that everything sat in for so long," Donte Brooks said. "It was terrible, man. It really was."

The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati estimated there were about 2,000 sewer backups from the Aug. 28 storms. A $3 billion upgrade to the system is underway, but the work won't prevent all backups during such a catastrophic storm. The sewer district says it would take an additional $30 billion to build the sewer big enough to prevent the 2,000 backups. 

Part of the problem is topography, but mostly it's about money -- your money. Paying the additional $30 billion would take 200 years at current sewer rates, or just 20 years with a 1,000 percent sewer bill increase.

Nearly 80 years ago, aerial photos show streams flowing through many neighborhoods in Hamilton County. In the 1960s and 1970s, developers built homes there. Some of those same neighborhoods are now among the ones with the worst sewer backup problems, MSD Director Gerald Checco said.

The Brooks family lives in a neighborhood where two streams came together a century ago. Development altered the landscape. It's unclear if that change contributed to the flooding in their basement.

Checco said MSD could put special valves in pipes that allow sewage to flow out of -- but not back into -- homes. A key question is cost, and whether it would be worth the investment. Checco said he isn't yet ready to talk about it comprehensively but admits something must change.

"We cannot do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome," he said.

MSD's current $3 billion overhaul is mandated in a federal consent decree, a sort of settlement between MSD and the federal government over the Clean Water Act. Much of MSD's system has combined sewers, where sewage from homes and businesses mixes with rainfall and other runoff. During heavy downpours, MSD can't treat all that wastewater quickly enough. So, raw sewage -- about 11.5 billion gallons a year -- flows straight from the combined sewers into local streams and rivers.

Or in some cases, it backs up into homes and businesses.

The overhaul should fix many of those problems, but not all of them.

Increasing capacity to handle extreme volumes of stormwater would cost another $30 billion, Checco said -- or 10 times the amount MSD is already spending from your sewer bill. Rates would go about 1,000 percent higher.

"Are you ready to pay $6,500 a year for your sewer bill? I don't think the answer is going to be 'yes,'" Checco said.

The problem is getting worse, too: According to Checco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports a 37 percent increase in rainstorm intensity in our region over the past 10 years.

MSD helps clean up and pays out claims when people have backups caused by problems in the public sewer system. But the Brooks family and other critics argue MSD remains difficult to deal with on claims, and makes insulting offers for damages.

The Brooks family said it will cost another $30,000 to make the basement what it was before the backup. MSD initially offered them $18,000.

"It's frustrating," Regina Brooks said. "We felt helpless. We felt like no one was going to help us."

They and two dozen other ratepayers took the next step and asked a federal magistrate to review their cases. They expect to have their day in court soon.

"We understand why they're not satisfied, because they're in a situation that's dreadful," Checco said.

After he spoke with the I-Team about the Brooks' case, MSD raised the offer to $25,000 and the couple accepted it.

Checco insists MSD has responded as quickly and fairly as possible to a major event, processing 1,315 claims from the Aug. 28 storms. So far, MSD has denied 7 percent of the claims. In 80 percent of cases, property owners accepted MSD's settlement offer.

MSD has paid $6.9 million to settle claims for the storms so far. They have also spent $5.5 million on cleaning and $1.3 million on administrative and legal costs, putting them at a little over half the $26.6 million that has been set aside for settling the claims.

"When we compare our response to other acts of God throughout the country, I am very, very proud of the speed in which we have responded to a catastrophic event," Checco said. "It doesn't mean we couldn't do better."

For Donte and Regina Brooks, better isn't enough. Their basement still smells like sewage sometimes when it's raining, they said. And every time a big storm arrives, they wonder if they'll be flooded again.