PORTLAND, Maine — With Portland facing $170 million worth of work to its antiquated sewer system, explaining to homeowners and businesses that will pay for the work how the upgrades will improve the city is an important sell job.

That’s why Portland city officials led a small group of reporters on a tour Thursday morning that included a food company’s on-site wastewater treatment plant, a pump station, a spot where sewage overflows into Back Cove, a low-lying street prone to flooding, and Capisic Pond.

All the sites have some relation to a looming $170 million overhaul of the city’s sewer system, described Thursday by Portland Sustainability Coordinator Ian Houseal as the largest construction project in city history.

The tour sought to highlight the interconnectedness between Portland’s economic vitality, recreational opportunities and the massive, multifaceted infrastructure project that will stretch over 15 years beginning in 2014 and add to more than 20 years and $94 million in investments made to upgrade the system already.

The outreach efforts also come just days before the city council begins discussion of a plan to implement stormwater fees, which would charge property owners based on the impervious surface area of their lots. The plan is scheduled to be taken up 5:30 p.m. Monday in a workshop at City Hall.

Most of the city’s sewer pipes — 120 miles worth — also collect stormwater runoff, so during heavy rainstorms, the water volume overwhelms treatment checkpoints and carries the combined sewage and stormwater straight into water bodies such as Back Cove, the Fore River and Casco Bay. Those events are called combined sewer overflows, and the city is under a federally enforced schedule to reduce those overflows from 2011’s 496.3 million gallons to about 87 million gallons annually by the end of the coming $170 million overhaul.

With the realization that stormwater runoff contributes as much to the overflow problems as sewage does, a task force led by City Councilor Ed Suslovic over the past year came to recommend to the greater council the creation of stormwater fees.

The extra cost to homeowners is expected to be hundreds of dollars each year, but as Thursday’s tour was intended to illustrate, city officials not only are required to tackle the upgrades but they believe the effort will be worth it.

Currently, the untreated sewage and industrial waste carried into water bodies by the overflows threaten shellfish health and wildlife, Suslovic noted Thursday during the tour stop at one of the overflow points into Back Cove.

“You can’t underestimate the economic value of the fisheries,” he said. “But also, as [city engineer Bradley Roland] and I can attest as two people who use this [Back Cove Trail] daily, seeing this cove turn into a festering cesspool of sewage isn’t something I think Portlanders would want.”

Tour stops Thursday included a visit to the St. John Street facility of AdvancePierre Foods, the nationwide company that acquired Barber Foods last year, to see the on-site industrial level wastewater treatment equipment used to extract raw chicken, vegetables and other particles from the water ejected from the plant into the city sewer system.

Plant manager Jeff Shaw said the company invested nearly $2 million in the equipment, an amount the operation will make back in eight years of lower annual surcharge payments to the city, which are calculated based on the wastewater quality leaving the facility. Shaw said the food and other particles extracted from the wastewater are then transported to Gorham and Vermont to be made into fertilizers.

The tour also included a stop at the Franklin Street Pump Station and a parking lot across Somerset Street from Whole Foods Market. That Bayside area is home to many low-lying streets susceptible to flooding during storm events and high tides.

The caravan’s final stop of the day was at Capisic Pond, where Suslovic, Portland Stormwater Program Coordinator Doug Roncarati and Andy Graham of the organization Friends of Capisic Pond attempted to hammer home the point that heavy repairs are necessary to protect watersheds. Speakers there also said individual property owners will play an important role in fixing water pollution problems beyond paying more in city bills.

Suslovic said that even though the city has successfully eliminated all but two sewer overflow points into Capisic Brook, by installing dedicated stormwater pipes to run alongside sewer pipes in many nearby areas, the downstream pond is flooded with cigarette butts and plastic bags during heavy rains. That’s because the stormwater runoff, even when it isn’t carrying untreated sewage, is dirty, Suslovic said.

“On the one hand, we’re eliminating untreated sewage,” Suslovic said, “but the challenge now is how do we clean up the runoff of stormwater? This is where we need to reach individual property owners to say, ‘Whatever’s on your lawn or driveway is ending up in the pond. Everything you see in the streets between the storms ends up in the water bodies eventually.’

“Building the East End treatment facility was easy — it was an engineered solution,” he continued. “What we have to do now is focus on something more difficult, which is behavioral change.”

Seth Koenig

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