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Settlement on Seattle sewage overflows heads to council

Courtesy Seattle Public Utilities
Combined sewer overflows still threaten some Seattle beaches after heavy rains, closing them to recreation and violating the federal Clean Water Act.

A more efficient way to fix one of Seattle’s most embarrassing environmental problems – that’s the promise of a proposed agreement on meeting federal standards for clean water.

The problem is untreated sewage that flows into our lakes and other waterways after big storms.

It happens because of a system that uses something called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. Dozens of pipes that carry both storm water and sewage have outfalls that allow the overflows to prevent the excess from backing up in people's basements.

But the system is outmoded. Like several other cities around the nation, Seattle is facing a federal lawsuit to address the issue, requiring that the city reduce the number of outflows and meet standards in the federal Clean Water Act.

Here's the deal

Washington State Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant says Seattle has negotiated a first-of-its-kind agreement that will allow to the city to meet standards with a new approach. He says Seattle will get credit for putting in systems to filter pollutants and slow down runoff, such as rain gardens and green roofs.

He says at the heart of the agreement is a new flexibility coming from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has the potential to save lots of money. 

“And Seattle is really the first one to step up to this new approach and say 'Alright, we're going to figure out how to do this, so that we can make sure that we're getting the most bang for our environmental buck,' ” Sturdevant says.

Seattle Public Utilities says this integrated approach is expected to save ratepayers about $375 million dollars over the next 13 years.  

Rates will go up to pay for it

They’ll still do upgrades to make sewage overflows less frequent. For instance, creating larger storage wells in some parts of the system.  

But Mayor McGinn says under the agreement, Seattle would be measured by the water quality it delivers at the end of the day, rather than a more rigid, federally directed schedule of improvements.

Some of the first attempts to use rain gardens in Seattle have failed, but authorities say they’ve worked out the glitches.

Work stipulated under the proposed agreement is estimated to cost about $500 million. There will be rate increases to cover the new investments. The average homeowner would pay about $60 dollars more per year by 2025.  

The agreement goes before Seattle’s city council this week.

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