Douglas Nettleton Talks Development, Sewers and the Problem of Sump Pumps in Mystic

Douglas Nettleton, Stonington WPCA Director (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)


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STONINGTON — Private sump pump outflows into municipal sewer systems are illegal but the town is offering Mystic sewer district customers “sump pump amnesty” for a short time. 

“We need to understand the breadth of the problem at this point and we have no idea how bad the problem is,” said Stonington Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) director Douglas Nettleton, in an interview with CT Examiner staff on Wednesday. “We need people to cooperate with us. We’re going to try to help them figure out a solution.” 

As part of the amnesty program, running from August 15 to Sept. 30, the town is offering homeowners help identifying alternatives to illegally discharging sump pumps, with the goal of removing these pumps from the town’s sewer system.

The program is one part of a larger effort to understand and manage where water is entering the town’s sewer system, increasing flows to the Mystic treatment plant which is already operating close to (and sometimes above) its 800,000-gallons-per-day capacity. 

Stonington Borough treatment plan (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

“We’re paying for all that water that they’re pumping and we don’t get any fees for that,” said Nettleton. “In that last storm that we got, that dropped four and a half inches of rain Monday and Tuesday, the Mystic flows hit 1.3 million for that day.” 

But the town is facing challenges much broader than managing sump pump inflows during periodic rainstorms.

The town has three treatment facilities — the others are in Pawcatuck and Stonington Borough — and 16 pumping stations, all operated by SUEZ North America.

In 1987, the town constructed a diversion line from Mystic to the Borough. That line, which can divert 300,000 gallons per day to the Borough plant, is now scheduled for refurbishment, at a cost of $1.64 million.

In 2010, voters approved an $18.3 million bond to upgrade the town’s three plants, including major upgrades to the equipment in the Mystic plant. 

In early June, the WPCA placed a moratorium on new sewer connections in Mystic. The moratorium is  scheduled to be lifted on September 25, 2020, if construction work on the diversion pipes is completed. 

A $300,000 Inflow and Infiltration study, known as an “I&I,” is also slated for the fall. That study is supposed to identify where excess water is flowing into the Mystic sewer system — potentially through private sump pumps — and where it is leaking out.

Operational costs versus capital improvements

One reason the town needs to fix Mystic’s flow levels is that user fees pay for operational costs, but new sewer connections, known as “tie-ins,” pay for capital improvements. With a moratorium on new sewer connections in Mystic, the WPCA’s capital fund is limited to revenue from new projects in the Borough and Pawcatuck.

“It’s tied to development so if all of a sudden everything stops tomorrow that fund’s not going to grow anymore,” Nettleton said, adding that 40,000 gallons per day of capacity was set aside for the Perkins Farm development on Jerry Browne Road in Mystic before the moratorium, enough for the 47,000-square-foot Hartford HealthCare building, 50-unit townhouse complex and 121-unit, four-story apartment building, under construction.

A substantial capital funding set aside is essential for emergencies, Nettleton said. 

“We have three treatment plants, we have how many water crossings, we have a pipe that runs under Route 78 — one big collapse on Route 27 could blow through a million dollars like nothing — so we have to have that money,” he said. “I’d like to see us not spend it down below $1 million. Some of our pipes are 40 years old.”

Electricity drives costs

“The cost of electricity is huge for us because everything we do requires power,” Nettleton said. “And then add to it all the rain that we’ve had — our pumps are working longer, all our equipment is running — and we pay demand fees because we use a lot of power.” 

The plants also switched from using chlorine for disinfection to a UV light system requires additional electricity. 

“The cost of operating three separate facilities, I just can’t tell you how expensive that makes it, it’s just not an economical way to do business,” he said. “Three operating permits that we pay for every year, it just goes right down the line.” 

The town’s contract with Suez also has built-in cost escalators, he said, while rate increases have not kept up with operational costs. 

“When I got here in 2015, they hadn’t had a rate increase in eight years. We had a five percent and a five percent increase and now we’re going to have to do a 10 percent increase — no one is too thrilled and it has to go to a town meeting for approval,” he said. 

Talking to other towns

Stonington also considered the option of connecting Mystic with Groton’s sewage system, said Nettleton, but when compared to revitalizing the diversion pipes to the Borough, the cost was prohibitive. 

“We have the facilities report that tells us what our options are by professionals who researched the town over 10 years ago,” he said. “The number one choice if we ever came to a point where we had to do something about Mystic would be to use the lines that exist in the ground, diversion lines, and that’s what we’re doing, that’s the cheapest course and that’s a lot better than tunneling under the Mystic River and trying to send sewage over to Groton.”

Someday the town may have to connect with Groton or even build one big treatment plant, said Nettleton, but as time goes by it’s going to be harder and harder to do that. No one wants a plant near them.” 

Nettleton said Stonington also remains in touch with North Stonington, which offered $1 million in February for 100,000 gallons per day of capacity in the Pawcatuck plant. Stonington’s Board of Finance rejected the offer, citing North Stonington’s failure to compensate Stonington for requested extra capacity at the Pawcatuck plant at the time of construction.

Allowing North Stonington to join would provide revenue but could result in complications, he said. 

“They’re proposing a minimum of 65,000 gallons a day if they come in and we have to look at it from all different sides,” he said. “It would help our revenue but it could cost us a lot because it may limit development.”

Mystic plant running efficiently

Despite at times exceeding capacity, the Mystic plant is meeting its obligations by every measure except flow, and with no bacterial violations, Nettleton said. 

“One thing that is really helping us with DEEP is that facility is operating really well and has been able to take these high flows,” he said. “If we had had violation after violation, my phone would be ringing off the hook.”

Given how well the plant is operating, Nettleton said, he asked DEEP for its approval to increase capacity for the Mystic plant, but the idea was rejected. 

Still encouraging development

Nettleton said he was optimistic the I&I findings will identify some of the Mystic plant’s flow issues, but part of the problem was mostly likely sump pumps. 

“There’s always the potential that we’re going to find some major thing and I would be very happy if we did — that would be an easy fix — but life just isn’t that easy,” he said. “If we find something that’s great, but I have to go with the assumption that we’ve got a sump pump issue, and we have to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with it — we can’t process that water for free — it’s not fair to the rest of the users.”

He said he had people who wanted to build in anticipation of the moratorium ending in Sept. 2020, though that date isn’t firm. In the meantime, developers can still build in the Borough and Pawcatuck. “We’re encouraging it,” said Nettleton.

Amnesty or…

Nettleton said the amnesty idea was designed to encourage residents to volunteer their information rather than being found out through the I&I study. 

“We need people to call us up and start a file on who’s got what and we’ll work from there, but we can’t do anything without knowing how bad the problem is,” he said. “But if people don’t respond and we find them in the I&I program, what we’re proposing is we’re going to tell you to take it off and it’s all at your expense, so take your chances, maybe we’ll find you, maybe we won’t.”

Some residents might feel it’s their right to have a sump pump tied into the sewer system “because they’ve probably had it for as long as they’ve owned the home,” he said. “But you know, we can’t afford it anymore.” 

Charging residents who tie in their sump pumps to the system might be a short-term gain in revenue, but could result in a long-term loss of capacity.

“If we charge them for it, it will help us pay our bills but it’s not going to solve the problem of what are we going to do when we use up the next 300,000 gallons per day because that solution is going to be expensive, if there is one at that point,” he said.

The story has been corrected to reflect the provider is SUEZ North America.