By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Hamilton County commissioners say the problem of sewers backing up into basements is so severe and persistent that the county needs to spend more money to help as many as 10,000 homeowners. But the county's budget may be as overwhelmed by the expense as the old sewer lines that need to be fixed.
Thousands of Hamilton County residents live in fear of rain, worrying that with each storm it'll be bad enough to send sewage flowing into their basements.
But the county, which controls the construction budget of the Metropolitan Sewer District, won't fix lines that carry sewage and stormwater - called combined sewers - unless the local community pays half.
That policy, adopted in 1995, considers managing the stormwater a local responsibility.
Combined sewers make up about 30 percent of the county's 3,000 miles of sewer lines. They are concentrated in the oldest neighborhoods.
About 90 percent of the sewer lines in Cincinnati are combined with stormwater and sewage.
On the eve of a Monday meeting to discuss the issue with sewer district officials, two of the three county commissioners say the county needs to do better.
"I'm fine with accepting the responsibility," commissioner Phil Heimlich said.
IF YOU GO
Several meetings related to sewage-in-basement problems are in the works:
Monday, 9:30 a.m., the Hamilton County commissioners and the Metropolitan Sewer District meet to discuss cost-sharing on sewer repairs and a new technology that might provide a cheaper solution to basement flooding problems. The commissioners meet on the sixth floor of 138 E. Court St., downtown.
Tuesday, 7 to 9 p.m., the Sierra Club hosts a meeting for sewage-in-basement sufferers in the Holy Family Church cafeteria, 806 Hawthorne Ave., in Price Hill.
Sept. 17, 7 p.m., Delhi Township holds a meeting for Rapid Run Road flood victims to discuss possible solutions and costs. It will be in the township administration building, 934 Neeb Road.
"The bigger question is, how do we pay for it? My attitude is, if we have the money, I'll fix them."
Commissioner Todd Portune, who has long advocated the county paying more, says combined sewers account for half of all flooding complaints. Commissioner John Dowlin says the current policy is adequate.
It's not clear exactly what it would cost the county to cover the entire expense of repairing troublesome combined sewers. MSD estimated in 2001 that it would cost $251 million to fix all basement flooding problems, and it has been focusing on fixing another big problem: sewer overflows into streets and ditches. All together, the needs total at least $1.25 billion, MSD says.
"Until the Board of Commissioners decides to either dramatically increase rates or forgo other work that's also highly necessary, we wouldn't get to (most basement problems) anyway," MSD Director Pat Karney said.
Sewage flooding threatens residents' health and hurts their pocketbooks.
Heavy rains can overload sewer pipes, forcing water with potentially disease-carrying human waste to back up through drains and toilets in low-lying basements. The flooded areas require extensive cleanup with disinfectants before the space is habitable again.
"This is a health hazard to me, my wife and our two young children," said Cheviot resident Ron Hogue, 35. The Hogues blame a combined sewer line near their house for causing more than a foot of flooding in their basement three times this year.
It's clear to Cheviot residents and leaders that if MSD's pipes are at fault, MSD should fix them.
"That's what (sewer fees) are supposed to go to," Cheviot Safety Service Director Steven Neal said. "It's like Cheviot residents have to pay twice."
MSD gets 2,500 sewage-in-basement complaints a year, and it estimates there are three more problems for every one that's reported. To Portune, that adds up to some 10,000 homes with flooding problems, although MSD says in some cases the problem is the homeowner's responsibility because it's caused by a faulty drain or a leak in the pipe leading to the home.
When basement flooding is caused by a sanitary sewer - a line meant to carry only sewage and not stormwater - MSD accepts full responsibility. It's when the flooding is caused by the overflow of a line carrying stormwater and sewage that MSD will only pay half.
The county's failure to make repairs is hurting older communities, Portune said.
"This issue has a direct relation to jobs and people moving out of Hamilton County," he said. "It makes those properties serviced by a combined sewer system much less attractive to own."
But Dowlin said local governments need to shoulder some responsibility.
"Cheviot is using their CDBG (federal grant) money this year on Glenmore Avenue," he said. "So apparently they think Glenmore Avenue is a higher priority than the sewer issue."
Even if Portune and Heimlich change the county's policy, homeowners shouldn't expect their problems to dry up overnight. MSD has $73.8 million to spend on all repairs and construction this year, compared with the estimated $251 million it would cost just to fix all of the county's sewage-in-basement problems.
"It's lots of money, and the money comes from you and I as ratepayers," MSD Deputy Director Bob Campbell said.
And basement flooding isn't MSD's only responsibility. The sewer district is spending $16.8 million this year on construction, mainly extending sewers into western Hamilton County to enable more commercial and residential development there.
MSD has been working on an overall plan for repairs to deal with a pollution lawsuit by the Sierra Club. U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel ordered MSD and the Environmental Protection Agency last week to complete work on a consent decree by Oct. 7.
The district estimates it would need $1.25 billion to $3.6 billion to stop all sewer overflows into streets and ditches as well as basements.
In the meantime, families pay.
Annette and Rick Roland estimate they have spent close to $20,000 trying to floodproof the basement of their Delhi Township home, to no avail.
"We've lost everything four times," she said. "You'd think you'd learn but in a (1,000-square-foot) house you don't have space."
The Rolands' house was one of 57 on Rapid Run Road that flooded when a combined sewer overflowed during a rainstorm early May 10. Their garage door was torn off and the wall separating the garage from the rest of their basement was knocked down.
Their son, Austin, 2, was in the basement when the water started to rise. He escaped.
The constant possibility of flooding costs families peace of mind.
"I used to like rain," Hogue said. "Now every time it rains I worry."
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