Sewer Overhaul To Cost $1.5 Billion

A lot of rain often means backed-up sewers, especially in east Omaha. It happens on average more than 50 times a year and it’s going to cost more than a billion dollars to fix.

It’s going to come from everyone who uses the system, homeowners and businesses alike. The plan would limit back-ups to as little as four times a year. It would also cost the average homeowner an extra $450 a year to help fix.

"Probably the most significant undertaking in the history of the city and certainly the most expensive,” observed Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

Since 1990, Omaha has spent $73 million trying to separate the sewers. When it rains, it backs up in the oldest parts of the city because the rain water and sewers from our homes run into the same pipe. The newer parts of the city are already separated.

Taxpayers are getting tired of it. “They said it would never happen again and it did and it's worse," said Sue Brenden.

Several hundred people came to listen Thursday night to see how the city plans to fix the decades-old problem now that the federal government has issued a mandate.

Some are still questioning whether it will get done. "What's to guarantee that this plan that's on paper will actually get done?” said Ernie Boykin. “The other plans were on paper and didn't get done. It's why they're still overflowing!"

Marty Grate of Omaha Public Works said, "If we don't, the full force of the state's version of the Clean Water Act will come into play. We would certainly face severe economic penalties."

It's impossible to ignore the $1.5 billion cost. That's the equivalent of five convention center/arenas. The average sewer rate paid now is $12 a month. It's likely to go up to $50 a month to pay for the upgrades, a more than 400% increase. For comparison, imagine $2.70 gas suddenly costing $11.23 a gallon.

And the high cost wouldn't go away once the sewer was built. "Although we're looking at a 15-year implementation, we will be paying for this for many years beyond that," said Grate.

There’s a lot of sewer in Omaha to separate, more than if we stretched a line from here to San Diego. It’s still in the developmental stage, but the city needs to finish the work by 2024.

Officials are also trying to figure out how to limit the impact for those who are poor or on fixed incomes.

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