Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.


The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

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5 Responses to Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

  1. Linda Chesnut says:

    Would you think the feds and state purpose for filing their lawsuit is to help insulate the city from Bayou City Waterkeeper?

  2. The article suggests this action was fairly routine. I don’t know nearly enough about this sort of thing to say any more than that.

  3. Gee, golly. Now would be a great time for Amanda Edwards to use her over priced law degree to propose a feasibility study on a municipal public bank.

    If only there were other cities we could google that have done feasibility studies.

    Oh wait, there is…

  4. robert says:

    I can only say “I told you so” about flooding and drainage infrastructure…. when I said we needed to invest/spend 500 million immediately (not plan to) to address these issues, because like Boston’s harbor cleanup we were going to get f*cked by very high water bills down the road. So, yes….someone is going to pay for the repairs and needed work that is loooong overdue…and that will be figured in the water bill.

    HPD officer shortage issues and lack of academy classes will also come to hit the city in the butt when the masses start to retire.

  5. Manny Barrera says:

    Linda this article seems to suggest that they may have come to help the city;

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