Fort Smith Confronts $480 Million Sewer Bill

Steve Parke, Fort Smith’s director of utilities, said the city’s project to improve the sewer system will cost more than the federal government initially estimated.
Steve Parke, Fort Smith’s director of utilities, said the city’s project to improve the sewer system will cost more than the federal government initially estimated. (Kat Wilson)
A remote-controlled camera is used to survey the inside of Fort Smith sewer pipes.
A remote-controlled camera is used to survey the inside of Fort Smith sewer pipes. (Kat Wilson)

Steve Parke’s cluttered desk is that of an extraordinarily busy man.

Parke, 61, is the director of utilities for the city of Fort Smith and has the task of overseeing a sewer improvement project estimated at nearly $500 million. The city recently negotiated a consent decree with the federal government over Fort Smith’s violations of the Clean Water Act.

“We were the poster child for Clean Water Act violations,” said Ray Gosack, Fort Smith’s city administrator. “We can overcome that reputation.”

Doing so, however, will require a monumental engineering project.

The 147-page consent decree document was filed in federal court in early January, and the city agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and spend $400,000 to help repair private sewer lines in low-income neighborhoods. Fort Smith also agreed to upgrade and maintain the city’s sewer collection and treatment system within 12 years.

The federal government said Fort Smith’s Clean Water Act violations since 2004 resulted in the discharge of more than 119 million gallons of untreated sewage into waterways, including the Arkansas River.

“This settlement will achieve long overdue improvements in the city’s sewer system that will substantially reduce the number of sewer discharges and help assure that the citizens of Fort Smith reside in a safe and clean environment,” said Sam Hirsch, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Environment & Natural Resource Division, in a press release statement when the decree was filed.

The improvements will take work and money. Parke said repairing and replacing dilapidated sewer lines is as complicated as one would expect, and more expensive than the federal government estimated.

The government said Fort Smith’s program would cost $255 million, but Parke said the final price tag would be approximately $480 million when inflation and maintenance costs are considered.

Fort Smith has spent more than $200 million correcting wet-weather overflows and treatment issues during the past decade. City officials said they have corrected more than 90 percent of wet-weather overflows.

For those not proficient in sewer terminology, a wet-weather overflow occurs when rainwater bleeds into sewer lines, causing unpleasant backups or floods in yards and bathrooms. Parke said if the overflow happens rapidly during a rain, it means the water has crossed from a storm drain directly into a sewer line, while a slower overflow is the result of water seeping through the ground.

Both mean the sewer line has a defect of some sort allowing water to flood the system.

A dry-weather overflow is when the backup occurs because the line ruptured from decay or a tree root breached the line or because something improper was flushed.

Parke said the city had CDM Smith Inc., the global consulting and engineering firm that has a Little Rock office, to devise a hydraulic model to help plan the city’s program. Parke said the city tested its system’s capacity to handle various heavy rainfalls, the kind of events likely to occur only every two or five or 10 years.

The city expanded and improved its two wastewater treatment plants, and Parke said the Massard Facility, which was upgraded in 2004, will be improved again soon. Parke said the P Street Facility can handle a flow of 83 million gallons a day, while regular flow averages around 8 million.

The treatment facilities can handle big water loads, and have retention areas that hold extra flow until the facilities clear up space. Fort Smith’s problem is not in the end of the sewer but in the lines that take the water from discharge point to treatment point.

“As most cities do, we have problems [because] storm waters enter the ground and find defects in the sewers and find a way into the sewer,” Parke said. “We’ve been taking an approach of increasing the capacity of taking that flow to the wastewater plants.”

The Next 433 Miles

Fort Smith has 508 miles of sewer lines, and Parke said the city has cleared approximately 75 miles either by repairing defects or confirming the line is good. Now the task is to review and rehabilitate the next 433 miles.

As an example of the task, Parke showed a diagram of Ward 1 that illustrated the sewer lines the city wants to fix or clear in four-year periods during the next 12 years. One 3-mile stretch on which work is about to start will cost more than $5 million.

And that’s just one short stretch in one ward of the city.

Parke said the city is trying to be methodical, not just for quality purposes but for financial, too. He said the first year is for field work to identify problem areas, the second year is to identify problems that need immediate repair and the last two years will be used to design and implement the repair.

Parke joked that the city has heard from long-lost contractor friends looking to get in on such an immense project.

Spreading the work on each section over four years also helps financially. Parke and Gosack participated in the negotiations with the federal government to get the 12 years to do the work, a period that will allow at least a little financial flexibility.

“You can’t start too early because you’d have a big upfront cost,” Parke said. “You have to stagger your design time and your design efforts so you have as much uniformed spread of cost as you can. We’ll have something in design and construction every year. It’s a matter of balancing that cost and managing that much work.”

Sewer Rates to Rise

The city has a remote-controlled cylinder with a rotating camera that allows access to the sewer lines to ascertain their condition. It is a $230,000 device, Parke said, and it is currently used just to investigate problem spots.

The city is required by the decree to survey 50 miles of sewer line each year.

The city paid for most of its previous sewer work with state revenue bonds, Gosack said. There is no escaping the fact that the current and future work will mean sewer rates will increase dramatically for Fort Smith residents.

Gosack said the first rate increase will come in a couple of months; officials predict the rates will double over the next decade. Gosack said the city can put another bond issue to a public vote in 2020.

It’s not just the design and contracting work that will cost money. The federal decree requires a maintenance program, which only makes sense because Fort Smith wants to keep improving its sewer system, and Gosack said it will mean another 80 or so employees added to the city’s payroll along with additional equipment and transportation.

“We will have a fairly significant increase,” Gosack said. “We’re going to have to ‘ooch’ our way into maintenance capability. We have two years to get most our maintenance capabilities in place.

“We’ve made substantial progress, but we still have work ahead of us. We don’t want to fall back into a state of deterioration.”