PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland task force is recommending the city begin charging property owners for storm-water runoff as a way to cover the cost of nearly $170 million in federally mandated sewer system repairs.

The city has long drawn the ire of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its aging pipes, “tens of thousands of feet” of which predate the Civil War, according to a city announcement this week. More than half of the city’s sewer network combines storm water with sewage in a single draining system, adding up to a volume that overwhelms treatment checkpoints during heavy rain and results in the discharge of sludge into sensitive natural water bodies.

“During wet weather, a portion of this combined sewage, which includes storm water, residential sewage and industrial waste, overflows into Portland’s streams, rivers and coastal waters untreated,” the City Hall announcement reads. “This water pollution carries pathogens that can make swimmers sick, can contaminate seafood and, overall, has serious impacts on the health of Casco Bay.”

But fixing the problem will not be quick or easy. Already, in response to EPA demands, the city sank $70 million into sewer system updates between 1993 and 2010, cutting annual sewer overflows from 720 million gallons to 420 million gallons over that span.

Getting down further to 87 million gallons annually will cost another nearly $170 million, with a long list of projects slated to kick off in 2014 in accordance with a City Council plan approved last year.

On Monday, the year-old Sustainable Stormwater Funding Task Force — headed by City Councilor Ed Suslovic and made up of business leaders, environmentalists, transportation officials, property owners and at-large residents — will hold its next meeting to talk over and absorb public input into how to pay for those projects.

The draft proposal the task force has on the table involves implementing a new fee structure for storm-water runoff. Suslovic said the group’s recommendation is to use a formula that calculates the storm-water impact based on the amount of impervious surface a given property has, with incentives offered to property owners who take steps to reduce runoff through tree wells, regimented pavement sweeping and other measures.

Suslovic said home and business owners shoulder the entirety of sewer system repair costs even if they flush little down the drain and contribute almost no storm water to the mix, while parking lot owners, for instance, pay nothing for the renovations.

“The question is, do we raise it all through sewer fees, or do we spread the burden out. To me, that’s more fair,” Suslovic told the Bangor Daily News.

Chris O’Neil, government relations consultant for the Portland Community Chamber, said members of the city’s business community believe the city should further engage Maine’s congressional delegation to seek federal help paying the massive overhaul costs.

“We need to be thinking high-level strategy if there’s any chance Portland can get this cleanup job done while mitigating the costs,” O’Neil said. “We could use a little help here if we’re going to have to be shouldering this burden. The contemplated fix is going to increase everybody’s sewer bill. Because it’s intended to be spread equitably across all payers, it will increase bills less for some users than other users, but everybody’s going to take a hit.”

He said old northeastern cities such as Portland are unfairly stressed by having to comply with EPA regulations that may be easier to meet for cities developed generations later with more contemporary technology.

“Portland’s got one of the oldest sewer systems in the country,” he said. “It’s not like we’re in Phoenix, with all PVC piping. That, to me, begs the question of why the federal government is mandating that 20 years worth of users have to fix a problem that took 150 years of users to create. If the federal government recognizes we have culpability here, they have to recognize that there were states in the west and southwest who weren’t even born yet when these systems were built.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.