Public health drives storm water separation

City: Residents better served if MS4 permit managed in-house
COVINGTON, Ky. - Since 2003, the City of Covington has partnered with Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky to co-manage what’s called the City’s MS4 permit, a rather narrow subset of federal Clean Water Act that applies to the quality, not quantity, of rain once it falls to the ground and starts making its way to streams, rivers and ultimately the oceans.  
On Tuesday night, the Covington Board of Commissioners voted to apply to the Kentucky Division of Water to regain sole responsibility for operating the MS4 storm water quality permit.
Strip away all the legal language, the nuances of federal regulation, the give and take of the City’s long and sometimes tense relationship with SD1, and the years of discussion that led to the Commission’s vote, and the takeaway is this: City leaders believe that the $1.6 million a year that Covington property owners pay to SD1 to manage the MS4 program could be better spent within the borders of Covington to address public health issues caused by polluted water that backs up onto streets and into basements during torrential rain.
“Sewage on our streets and in people’s basements is not a mere inconvenience but a very real public health hazard,” Mayor Joe Meyer said. “We’ve been trying to get these issues addressed for decades, and quite simply the regional model isn’t working on behalf of Covington residents.”
The vote is the first step of a lengthy process that would end with Covington joining the cities of Florence, Cold Spring, and Walton in managing its own MS4 program.
Among the experts advising Covington are Abigail Rains, an environmental scientist and consultant who was the MS4 Program Coordinator for the Kentucky’s Division of Water for 13 years, and Assistant City Solicitor Brandon Voelker, who as Cold Spring’s city attorney oversaw that its transition in 2013 and oversees its MS4 program today.
Parts of Covington have long been plagued by sewage-tainted water backing up through floor drains into homes when heavy rain overwhelms the storm water drainage system managed by SD1. A series of torrential rains in June 2019 that caused widespread damage in several neighborhoods intensified the MS4 discussion.
Referencing those instances and others, such as ongoing problems at 36th and Park streets, the City Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday in favor of applying to the Division of Water. The vote followed a wide-ranging discussion similar to one held at last week’s caucus meeting and to those at Commission meetings periodically for more than a year.
City leaders said it was critical for residents to understand several points about the decision:
  • The change will take time and require more votes.
  • The MS4 permit is extremely limited in its purview. The name itself is an acronym for “Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System,” which refers to the system of “conveyances” (streets, curbs, gutters, catch basins, storm drains, ditches, etc.) that “convey” rain water to streams, rivers, and eventually the oceans. The program itself governs only the quality, not the quantity, of storm water.
  • SD1 will continue to oversee the City’s sanitary sewer system - or wastewater that comes from showers, toilets, sinks, and other parts of a building’s plumbing. It will also oversee combined sewers. In older cities like Covington, sewers often carry both rain runoff and sanitary sewage.
  • Covington will continue to work in partnership with SD1 on issues related to sanitary sewer systems and combined sewer systems, including contributing money toward infrastructure projects in those realms.
  • And the takeover of the MS4 permit will not be the end-all, be-all solution to problems of street flooding and sewer drain backups that happen during torrential rains. 
“I cannot stress enough that this will not instantly fix every flooding problem in Covington,” City Manager David Johnston said. “When 5 inches of rain falls in an hour on ground that’s already saturated, we’re still going to see problems in some of our neighborhoods. But improvement projects that help address the potential public health hazards of conditions that cause backups will, over time, help us mitigate some of those backup problems as well as help us be more responsive to residents who suffer losses because of those problems.”
‘Minimum controls’
Managing the MS4 permit requires the creation of programs - called “minimum controls” - that fulfill the goals of the overall program, City Solicitor Michael Bartlett told the Commission. Eventually, the City will need to pass ordinances related to those goals. They are:
  • Public education and outreach.
  • Public involvement and participation.
  • Illicit discharge detection and elimination.
  • Construction site storm water runoff control.
  • Post-construction storm water management in new development and redevelopment.
  • Pollution prevention/good housekeeping for municipal operation. 
Bartlett noted that the most expensive of those six responsibilities - the “good housekeeping” - is already performed by Covington’s Public Works Department at the City’s expense, including things like street-sweeping, keeping catch basins and culverts cleaned out and in good repair, and cutting weeds and cleaning out debris in ditches and swales.
As Voelker pointed out, “Covington is already doing the lion’s share of the costly boots-on-the-ground work out of its General Fund.”
The money
Meyer said much of the City’s decision was driven by where the fees paid by Covington residents is spent.
Like other residential customers in Northern Kentucky, the owners of detached single-family homes and duplexes pay a flat monthly fee to SD1 of $5.04 for storm water, as part of their monthly wastewater bill.
Meyer said the cost of administering the MS4 program constituted a small percentage of the $1.6 million a year raised by that fee, with the bulk of the remaining funds spent on capital projects outside the city.
Citing budget documents sent to him in late May by SD1, he said that SD1’s storm water capital budget for the next five years earmarks less than $3 million to storm water projects within Covington’s borders itself. During that time, the agency stands to collect $8 million from Covington residents through the MS4 program.
Since 2003, Meyer added, Covington ratepayers have paid more than $27 million in storm water fees.
In the future, Covington will put the fees in a fund dedicated to storm water maintenance and improvements, he said.
SD1’s response
During the meeting, which because of the pandemic was held virtually, Covington City Clerk Maggie Nyhan read into the record a two-page letter from SD1 Executive Director Adam Chaney that touted SD1’s work to improve Northern Kentucky’s wastewater and storm water systems on a regional basis and argued against Covington’s decision.
“SD1 believes that storm water management should continue to be done regionally,” the letter said.
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