With rising costs, diminishing returns and limited budgets, officials in King County, Washington state and around the country are questioning further work to control combined sewer overflow.

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With billions of dollars at stake, local and state officials around the country are questioning the cost and benefit of continued work to control combined sewer overflow (CSO), including here in Seattle, where more than $1.2 billion in ratepayer dollars are on the table.

King County has outlines of a control plan to limit pollution from overflows of small amounts of raw sewage from some storm drains during heavy rain. CSO work has been under way in Seattle and King County for decades, and pollution from overflows already is greatly reduced.

But getting the last percentages of control is very expensive. It’s so expensive that it could siphon off the region’s capacity to do other environmental work, local officials say, even though study after study has shown stormwater runoff, not the remaining volume of combined sewer overflows, is the largest source of pollution to Puget Sound.

It used to be that clean-water advocates said the answer is eventually just to do everything. But as communities here and around the country see escalating spending and diminishing environmental return — and tighter budgets — the political ground is shifting.

“It’s a different world,” said Gerry O’Keefe, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “The kinds of choices that are being made in Olympia these days force everyone to be much more focused and disciplined in what we can accomplish with the resources we have.”

A public-comment period ended last week, and County Executive Dow Constantine will make recommendations on the plan to the Metropolitan King County Council in March. The council is scheduled to adopt a final plan by August.

The stakes are high.

Seattle is a city where voters just dumped a proposed $60-a-year car-tab fee, but residents may soon face a big increase in utility bills that already are among the highest in the country.

King County’s $711 million plan pencils out to a wastewater rate increase for a typical customer of $7.61 a month by 2030. Seattle’s plan costs $500 million and would raise rates by $7.41 a month by 2025 for a typical single-family customer. Seattle residents would pay both increases.

CSO work is so expensive, it’s on track to eat nearly 40 percent of Seattle Public Utilities’ $576 million 2012-2017 drainage and wastewater capital budget, the largest share dedicated to any single purpose by far.

All the costs penciled so far are estimates — they could all turn out to be much higher, analysts say.

Rules draw objections

Local officials have said they have no choice but to do the combined sewer-overflow work because of the way federal requirements under the Clean Water Act are implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state Department of Ecology.

Not only cost and benefits are at issue, but also the manner in which the control plans are formulated: by consent decrees overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice. Some local officials bearing the brunt of that enforcement approach are starting to balk.

“You are treated like a criminal,” said Dave Berger, mayor of Lima, Ohio, for 23 years. His city has been working for nine years to get approval of a long-term control plan for combined sewer overflows, and watched the cost balloon from $45 million to $100 million — for a community of 83,000 people.

“It is a power relationship, not a partnership, and in the relationship they have the power to tell us what to do,” Berger said of the EPA. “But I believe what is being done is a waste of resources and the wrong priority.

“For $35 million we have now addressed the large majority of the problem, and now we are being required to spend in excess of $100 million. Three times what we have already spent, on a fraction of the remaining problem.”

So it goes around the country, including Seattle, where the last 1.3 billion gallons or so of effluent from combined sewer overflows — down from 30 times that in the 1970s — is slated to cost about $1 a gallon to manage.

In some other cities, local officials are pushing back. Mayor Jim Suttle, of Omaha, Neb., takes issue with the means by which “clean” is determined in the control plans.

The measurement counts how often overflows occur, not what’s in them, their environmental effect or even their volume. Washington’s state standard, adopted in 1986, is one overflow event on average per year per location — even stricter than the federal standard of four events.

To Suttle, scoring a cleanup by the number of times an overflow happens makes no sense. “It is like charging for electricity on the basis of how many times you turn on the lights, rather than how many kilowatts are used.”

He and others said they are cautiously optimistic that in October, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urged a new, flexible approach by EPA regional administrators that strives for cost-effective expenditures to achieve clean-water results.

And earlier this month, Ron Sims, a member of the Puget Sound Partnership leadership council, convened federal, state, local and tribal clean-water advocates and policymakers to stress the importance of devising a science-based plan for Puget Sound that makes the most of every dollar.

“There is only going to be so much money,” Sims said. “If we just check boxes, we will lose the Sound. There has to be some CSO, but the issue is how much, and then how do we get to the other things?”

To Will Stelle, Northwest regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, it’s a long-overdue conversation. The agency’s scientists are producing a growing body of data that documents lethal effects of stormwater on salmon in urban streams.

“Given the severity of the more ubiquitous stormwater impact on the aquatic system, maybe there are better benefits in using money to deal with the larger stormwater issues, and not just CSOs,” Stelle said. “It is at the heart of the issue of trade-offs and bang for the buck.”

Bremerton’s saga

To some, the city of Bremerton provides a cautionary tale. After years of work on controlling CSOs beginning in 1994, the city opened its beaches for shellfish harvest in 2003 — one of the biggest clean-water victories out there, and achieving Gov. Chris Gregoire’s oft-repeated goal of a “fishable, digable, swimmable” Puget Sound.

Yet the city had to keep going, spending about $17 million more for an eventual total of more than $50 million on 23 major capital projects to satisfy a lawsuit — and achieve Washington’s control standard.

By the time that was done, the city had spent so much that wastewater rates went up 36 percent in 2007. Every city ratepayer will pay $3,600 over the 20-year life of the city’s more than $40 million debt, or about $180 a year, city officials estimate.

“There ought to be some sort of cost benefit; at the point you have returns diminishing, you ought to stop,” said Tom Knuckey, who helped lead the city’s CSO projects. But that is not the way the [state] rule is written.”

Looking ahead, Ted Sturdevant, director of the state Department of Ecology, said he is optimistic the state standard can be reached while still making progress on the bigger stormwater problem; it all depends on how the CSO work is done. “I don’t see this as putting jurisdictions in a straitjacket and locking them into a long future of dumb investments,” Sturdevant said.

Dennis McLerran, head of EPA Region 10, said he is open to a discussion of setting priorities as his agency works through consent decrees with Seattle and King County on CSO control plans.

All well and good, notes Constantine. But meanwhile, the federal government and Ecology are very actively pursuing a consent decree.

“The establishment of the consent decree, of having this box around combined sewer overflows, that would tie up a lot of resources.” Constantine said. “But it wouldn’t end the question of what else needs to be done. It just makes it far more difficult.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.