Should be ready soon, once the federal court signs off on it.
Help finally could be on the way in the form of an agreement between the city of Houston and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at upgrading the city’s embattled sewer system.
The proposal would cost an estimated $2 billion over 15 years and could increase water rates as soon as next spring.
Houston’s hundreds of sewage overflows each year, often caused by broken or clogged pipes, contaminate streams in violation of the Clean Water Act, and drew the EPA’s attention a decade ago.
Rather than fight the violations in court, the city and EPA negotiated a “consent decree” mandating actions Houston must take to reduce spills across its more than 6,200 miles of sewers, 384 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.
City Council approved the agreement last year. Federal officials spent months responding to comments on the proposal, and then, in August, asked a federal judge to approve the document and put it into effect. No ruling has been issued.
“After its review of the motion to enter, we expect that the court will approve entry of the consent decree,” said Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones.
The nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper has asked the court to withhold its approval until the agreement is improved, arguing that, among other deficiencies, it does not sufficiently address historical inequities.
A Houston Chronicle analysis four years ago found that a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur in low-income communities of color. And an analysis of Houston 311 service requests from the last two years shows historically Black southside neighborhoods such as South Park, South Acres and Sunnyside are among the most likely to report sewer problems even though high-income neighborhoods, in general, are more likely to call 311.
Kristen Schlemmer, Waterkeeper’s legal director, said her group feels the decree is needed but that it must deliberately prioritize repairs in historically neglected communities and require more transparency about the spills that occur there.
“What we would have liked to see the city do is to start with the impact on low-income communities and communities of color and craft its consent decree around that,” she said. “Instead they came up with their whole plan and when we raised the issue of environmental injustices, they’re like, ‘Well, completely incidentally, we’re addressing some of those issues.’”
EPA officials declined comment, citing the pending court action. In court filings, attorneys for Houston and state and federal regulators have said the decree is citywide and will not overlook any area. They also have noted that it requires the city to publish annual reports on the decree’s implementation and monthly reports tallying the location of each spill.
“Low-income communities are not being neglected,” one August filing stated. “Rather, low-income communities, especially those communities with higher numbers of (spills) and aging infrastructure, are being addressed with the ‘worst first’ prioritization.”
The decree would force Houston to clean its 5,500 miles of gravity-driven sewer pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to invite blockages by pouring grease, oil and other fats down the drain.
The agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing, cleaning and repairing the city’s sewer system, and prioritizes fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms, including the area around Mama Seafood.
See here, here, here, and here for the background. This will likely cause your water bill to go up, though we don’t know yet by how much. That wouldn’t be necessary now if we had been doing this all along, but here we are. If you don’t like it, go build yourself a time machine and travel back to, I don’t know, 1985 or so and yell at Kathy Whitmire about it. Otherwise, just know that there will be fewer sewer overflows in the future. That’s worth a few extra bucks a month on your water bill.