Combined-sewer-overflow projects: Too much for too little?

Just as the county moves into the next stage of the plan to reduce combined-sewer overflows (CSO) from West Seattle’s Murray Pump Station by razing homes to install a huge underground tank in the area shown above, questions have been raised about the overall cost-benefit efficiency of the ongoing state-mandated CSO-reduction programs that the city and county both are pursuing.

Those questions are not new, but they are suddenly in a bright spotlight because of a Seattle Times report – which even led King County Executive Dow Constantine to send a news release late today with his thoughts on the issue.

More on that ahead, but first, the latest on Murray, one of two county CSO-control projects now in the planning stages in West Seattle (the other is a “green stormwater” approach for the basin feeding the Barton pump station by the Fauntleroy ferry dock):

At the Morgan Community Association‘s recent quarterly meeting, Murray CSO project manager Erica Jacobs said they’ve chosen a design team – Bellevue-based HDR – and are in the “contract negotiation and execution stage,” with preliminary design work to start next month. The design process, Jacobs said, will take more than a year – the timetable projects “final design” will be done by December of 2012. Next month, she said, also is when the county expects to make purchase offers to property owners.

The state-mandated environmental-review process is closed, she added, saying it brought “eight formal comment letters” – and that all have been responded to. Next step, according to Jacobs, is a September public meeting to “introduce members of the design team,” once the contract is “initiated.” Crews will be boring at the site, too, to “gather information for technical parameters of the design,” Jacobs explained, including “the depths that will be needed for the storage tank.” Then in October, she said, a community “design advisory committee” will be formed.

But now, enter the Times story about the overall CSO program – read it here. Reporter Lynda V. Mapes‘ story doesn’t dispute the point that CSO control has made a difference in Puget Sound water quality; it focuses on how much money is scheduled to be spent to make an additional, relatively small reduction in the pollution from the overflows that happen during big rainstorms, and points out that the biggest pollution threat to Puget Sound right now is runoff, which the hundreds of millions slated for further CSO control won’t even touch. She quotes several authoritative sources as saying it seems like time to step back and re-examine priorities.

County Executive Constantine’s statement late today appears to reaffirm support for the ongoing projects – read on for the full text:

Lynda Mapes’ Seattle Times article highlights many important questions that should be part of a broader public discussion about protecting water quality, such as how we prioritize our investments, including controlling combined sewer overflows and better treating polluted runoff from our roads and neighborhoods.

King County strongly supports the objectives of the Clean Water Act and we will continue to comply with its requirements. We can’t ignore the localized health and environmental impacts of combined sewer overflows. We must be able to reconcile separate, often competing mandates. I believe we can achieve better outcomes if we work with stakeholders and encourage regulators to take a more integrated, watershed- and region-wide approach to cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies.

We’re taking this integrated approach in the Lower Duwamish, where King County is leading efforts to link CSO projects with river clean-up, better management of stormwater, and habitat restoration. I want a broader conversation about how we can bring a more holistic approach to setting priorities and tackling funding issues for Puget Sound as a whole.

Since the late 1980s, King County has made investments that have reduced combined sewer overflows by 61 percent. We’re now updating the plan that will guide the remaining CSO control investments. The public has told us that reducing these overflows is important. Now is the time to get stakeholder input on how we can maximize the value of our public investments within local watersheds and throughout Puget Sound.

The county’s home page for the Murray (Lowman Beach) project is here; the Barton “green stormwater” project info is here. Neither project is expected to be under construction before 2013.

15 Replies to "Combined-sewer-overflow projects: Too much for too little?"

  • Bryan F August 1, 2011 (10:40 pm)

    Ms. Mapes’ article is a little misleading, making it sound like Combined Sewer Overlow from storm events and storm runoff are separate issues. Yes poluted runoff from storm events is universally accepted as the leading cause of water pollution in Puget Sound, and other surface waters across the nation. However, Combined Sewer Overflows are a direct result of storm water runoff.

    I do agree that we need to prioritize our water treatment systems, and incorporate more green infrastructure (natural vegetation, etc.) and other solutions that are more sustainable, environmentally and economically over time.

    But the problem with CSO events – you get this very concentrated release of untreated raw sewage mixed with stormwater at individual overflow points all along Puget Sound, the Duwamish Rivers, and numerous other local waterways. So these are important to address – that’s where I feel the article is misleading, as if it were a separate issue. These really are integrated concerns and require a diverse set of solutions.

  • Mike August 2, 2011 (12:05 am)

    More condos = more toilets = more sewage. All new structures have updated plumbing which flows much more water. Your options are update the way we send sewage out or stop building. Many people don’t realize the vast amount of untreated sewage that we already send out to Puget Sound, especially when the storm water overflow is overwhelmed. Still, it’s a minor issue compared to the crap that floats at the bottom of the Duwamish head.

  • Jim August 2, 2011 (7:27 am)

    OK Seattle Times, let’s take another step back from solving yet another problem.
    If you notice, none of the detractors interviewed offered any specific alternatives. They cry for more analysis and study, yet were all in positions to affect a change in CSO policy as senior public officials. Now, their tune changes as they have moved on to new roles in activism or private consultancy. I think I smell something and it isn’t sewage.

  • DownWithDow August 2, 2011 (7:30 am)

    The fact that Mr. Constantine would sign off on the use of eminent domain to divest families of their property and family legacies at rock-bottom prices to build an underground tank in a “sensitive” neighborhood is so outlandish (since there are viable, other alternatives)… is so outlandish and uncivil that I personally will do everything I can to make sure Mr. Dow does not get elected to any office every again. You will get a chance to sign the petition in the very near future. The only possibility of redeeming himself is to offer those families at least 20% above the value of those homes at their highest in the last 10 years so that those families at least get a proper return on their family legacies. Oh, just one other thought, maybe King County should reimburse the City of Seattle and the State for the tax base that will be lost when King County buys out those properties.

  • JoAnne August 2, 2011 (9:35 am)

    The point of Mapes’ article is that in King County we have no public discussion of the cost/benefit of these expensive programs.

    No one discussed the possible alternatives to spending money on more overflow structures.

    Likewise, no one discussed the alternatives to forming a “ferry district” to support the water taxi, which has been fraught with breakdowns and crashes, and which is not a realistic commuting alternative for most KC residents.

    If we had such discussions, perhaps there would be better and more responsible use of public funds. Perhaps then the county could even reconsider the practice of taxing the elderly out of their homes.

  • JB August 2, 2011 (9:49 am)

    @JoAnne. I think you are conflating the water taxi maintenance/reliability issues with the “ferry district” proposal.

    Unfortunately, this article highlights one of the long standing shortcomings of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA mandates fixes of point sources of pollution, even when such sources are rare events and costly to fix. In this case it is CSO events. It (CWA) has limited to no authority for mandating clean-up of non-point sources of pollution. In this case residential agricultural run-off (lawn care chemicals), old poorly functioning septic systems, or other surface run-off.

    These sources may be less-costly for municipalities correct, as well as providing more improvement to Puget Sound, but the money is eaten up by the mandated corrections. Unfortunately, we have a federal government that is incapable of addressing this long standing and well documented issue in a meaningful way.

  • Eric Goetz August 2, 2011 (10:24 am)

    Fascinating Times article. I, too, noticed that folks gave no specific alternatives to CSOs, in order to address the surface runoff issue. I agree with everyone, that the current legislation is broken in this regard and that if we’re serious about cleaning up Puget Sound, we need to tackle the runoff problem in earnest. It’s only going to get worse, as the region’s population expands.

  • Peter Maier August 2, 2011 (11:06 am)

    Seattle is in an unique position the show the nation (actually world) how waste water (both sewage and storm water) from a city should be treated.
    Copied my comments on the Seattle Times article:

    Most people do not know that nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste is not required to be treated. This because EPA used an essential test incorrectly when it implemented the Clean Water Act and as one of its many consequences ignored 60% of the pollution in sewage Congress intended to ‘treat”. Nitrogenous waste, besides exerting an oxygen demand, just like fecal waste, also is a fertilizer for algae, thus contributes to dead zones. (

    All this can be verified in any text book, but the media clearly does not want to spent the time to learn what sewage is, how it impacts open waters and how it can be treated. Because if it would, they will learn that EPA was aware of the faulty test in 1984, but refused to correct the test and that in 1978 it already acknowledged that not only much better treatment (including nitrogenous waste) was available, but also would cost less to built and operate.

    Many condemn combined sewer system, but when all the cards are on the table, such a system will solve all water pollution problems, if one only is willing to admit that the present sewage treatment plants are actually only odor control facilities, based on a more than a century old treatment technology.

    CSO’s do not overflow every time it rains. Depending on how the sewer system is designed, overflows occur when flow rates exceed 3 to 5 times the daily (dry weather) flow rate. Most engineers prefer a separate sewer collection system, but since urban runoff water is heavily polluted, an objective comparison between a combined and separate sewer system, will show that, as far as impacting water quality (the environment) the combined system will be much better. Of course all these cost/benefits comparisons are worthless, since nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste is not required to be treated in either system, while this waste, besides exerting an oxygen demand (like fecal waste) is also a fertilizer for algae and causes dead zones. And all that because of a faulty applied pollution test. (see also previous comment)

  • Nulu August 2, 2011 (1:17 pm)

    “More condos= more toilets= more sewage.”
    This is false and irrelevant. New buildings are by code far more miserly with water although they have new plumbing.

    It is the thousands of older homes with old 3 to 6 gallon a flush toilets, old full flow (unrestricted) faucets and shower heads, old inefficient clothes & dish washers and old yard and lawn care habits that are the real unaddressed problem. Condos are actually far more efficient in their use of resources and rarely have large grass lawns like single family residences.

    The Times article was interesting to me because it labeled the Ballard project a failure, interesting because at the neighborhood meeting for the Barton Reservoir info, the King County Bureaucrats actually had a Seattle official present to deny that the Ballard project was a failure and claimed to be solving issues.

    Some of the real culprits of our water quality are not at all popular to address. These include pet owners not properly disposing of feces, our insistence on large over fertilized lawns and increasing hard surface areas such as illegally paving over driveways and planting strips.

  • ohmygosh August 2, 2011 (3:55 pm)

    Most old homes ,like mine ,have new low water toilets and new shower heads. We aren’t stupid just because we live in old homes. We do like to save money and conserve too.So it is not the old home owners near as much as all the new apts and condos.

    Never have green lawn.Too much waste. My neighbors in their old homes either.

    Too many generalized statements.Not one thing to blame except too many people.

  • JoAnne August 2, 2011 (5:48 pm)

    JB, to clarify, the KC “Ferry District” is not a proposal but a done deal. The ferry district was formed in 2007 as a TAXING entity in order to levy property taxes to fund the Vashon passenger-only ferry and WS water taxi.

    Also, the water taxi is not feasible for commuters mainly because there is no park-n-ride, not because of breakdowns/crashes.

    It is similar to the storm-water issue because its another case of the county making really wasteful decisions with taxpayer money.

    The federal government has no power to force King County to interpret and fund the Clean Water Act in any particular manner. These decisions are the responsibility of those in county government.

  • george August 2, 2011 (7:35 pm)

    Nulu, I’m sure if you talked to the City of Seattle and King Co., they’d be very proud of the results they’ve achieved with replacing toilets, shower heads, and clothes washers. So lost in your statements are the facts that there are thousands of more condo’s and apts adding to the congestion of outflow into our waters, not to mention the new businesses with parking lots and parking garages. I think you missed that one.

  • Bryan F August 3, 2011 (9:05 am)

    Here’s a good response article that in my opinion better addresses the various viewpoints and priorities around CSO and stormwater treatment:

    I also think turning this into a “new housing is bad” versus “old housing is bad” finger pointing campaign is not constructive. This is a community, regional and national issue, and we need to work together to solve it. I really think the community/neighborhood scale seems to be that catalyst point, where actions can take place, tangible results can be seen, and we can share and learn from each other. Some changes will need new infrastructure and innovations, but much of the problems can be solved or reduced through behavior change – cleaning up after pets, natural yard care, not washing your car in the street/driveway, etc.

    Sustainable West Seattle has a neighborhood group working on this very issue (I have been volunteering on the team the past 9 months). Check out the website and/or attend a meeting if you are interesting in helping lead a positive change in our community and environment.

  • Kate August 3, 2011 (10:58 am)

    King county has to comply with the Clean Water Act. This is a federal law, which is binding unless repealed (not happening). So you can argue all you want about cost-benefit, the county is simply doing what it needs to do to comply with the law.

  • co August 3, 2011 (11:23 am)

    All I know is it stinks bad down by Lowman Beach.
    And anyone that lives down there that is against the pump station project must just love that raw sewage smell. Especially in the warm summer evenings. Soooo Grose

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