A study of Macon-Bibb County’s stormwater systems has confirmed officials’ suspicions that there is a need for a massive overhaul.
The first phase of a recent stormwater study says many of of the systems that control stormwater are “aging, severely degraded and at risk of failure.” Later this month, Macon-Bibb commissioners are expected to vote on approving a second phase of the study, performed by Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon, that will focus on areas such as costs and policies.
Repairing and replacing the system is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
“Whether it’s the brick portions built in the late 1800s or the newer concrete sections built in the past 40-50 years, essentially all of it must be replaced,” Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said in an email. “If one section goes out, it could easily take down the whole system.
“We knew the system needed major upgrades, but this (study) gives us a much more accurate picture of the extent of the work.”
The study cites various problems, including the lack of a comprehensive stormwater plan and that most measures have been used to respond to problems instead of preventing them. Stormwater runoff can lead to sinkholes, flooding and erosion.
“Maintenance problems are addressed only after they become apparent in the form of clogged sewers, flooded properties, eroded ditches and roads, collapsed inlet headwalls, street cave ins or pollution incidents,” the report said. “Symptoms are reactively treated, but many times the underlying causes are not corrected.”
Some of Macon-Bibb’s stormwater problems can be attributed to the city’s location. The city has the highest percentage of floodplain area compared to other urban areas in Georgia. Another challenge the study pointed out is the lack of a detailed inventory of Macon-Bibb’s stormwater system. In 2009, data collection began, but at least 50 percent of the stormwater system in the former incorporated city limits have not been identified.
While an overhaul of the stormwater system is needed, there also could be a major shift in how it’s managed. Before consolidation of Macon and Bibb County in 2014, the two governments operated separate stormwater management programs. Since consolidation, the combined Macon-Bibb County has managed the system.
As there was community expansion, there were other issues that developed for residents and other outlying areas. It’s a big problem. It’s a growing problem. I don’t think we can get ahead of it, but we can start putting these ideas to work to catch up.
Sam Hart, chairman of Macon Water Authority
In some cases, that maintenance only leads a stormwater problem moving to a new area, the study said.
So far, the Macon Water Authority has set aside about $580,000 to pay for the study, and another $200,000 could be needed to complete the study.
“What we’re looking at now is does it make sense for the water authority to be the (stormwater) entity since it deals with a lot of what of what we do,” Macon Water Authority President Tony Rojas said. “The trend in water resources management industry is to consolidate management of water into one entity.”
But with early estimates of at least $30 million of upgrades needed just around downtown Macon, officials also will have to find funding methods to pay for capital projects and ongoing maintenance throughout the county.
“We have a lot of pipes in the downtown area that have outlasted their lifespan, so you have to do an assessment to see what needs to be done immediately,” said Sam Hart, the water authority’s chairman.
The County Commission has listed stormwater management as one of the priorities for its special purpose local option sales tax referendum that will likely go before voters in November. Macon-Bibb SPLOST coordinator Clay Murphey has said he would recommend that $30 million be designated to stormwater.
Floore said Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration is using some of the current SPLOST money and possibly future SPLOST funds for stormwater work, “but it won’t be enough to fully address the issues identified.”
“And whether or not the future SPLOST passes, this is work that has to happen,” he said. “The portion of the study coming up should give us a plan on how to move forward, as well as funding options.”
The current SPLOST, approved in 2011, has $14 million set aside for stormwater improvements.
“A good portion of what’s been fixed were projects we didn’t have planned, and they just show up,” Rojas said. “Thanks goodness we have had SPLOST.”
Whether a stormwater utility fee could generate enough revenue to cover operation and maintenance costs also will be studied, Rojas said.
While MWA is doing well from a financial standpoint, Rojas said it does not have enough money to cover stormwater improvement costs.
The water authority places much of its money from water and sewage fees back into infrastructure. For instance, MWA is spending $4 million on infrastructure as part of the improvements the Georgia Department of Transportation is making along Interstates 75 and 16, Rojas said.
“It’s not uncommon for (the water authority) to fund projects that are $2.5 million or $1 million,” he said.
Another shift in the focus of stormwater management is underway, Rojas said.
“Stormwater is going to to be as much about water quality as flood management in the future,” he said.
The stormwater issues didn’t occur overnight and won’t be solved quickly, Hart said.
“As there was community expansion, there were other issues that developed for residents and other outlying areas,” he said. “It’s a big problem. It’s a growing problem. I don’t think we can get ahead of it, but we can start putting these ideas to work to catch up.”