City moves on new sewer construction

N. Douglas' sewage problems have residents asking who's 1st on list

Posted: Monday, January 09, 2006

Like the grumpy lady looking for beef in the old Wendy's hamburger commercials, many in Juneau have been asking: Where's the sewer pipe?

"It's been in the process ever since I've lived here," said Mike Hatch, who runs a Jeep dealership on north Douglas Island and hopes to develop new homes on his vacant 16 acres nearby.

Hatch can't afford to build a septic treatment system for an entire subdivision. Especially not in north Douglas, where septic failure is rampant and fecal pollution spreads along the beaches and into Gastineau Channel.

Juneau voters ranked the expansion of Juneau's sewer system high on the city's October ballot initiative. Their decision to continue paying a 1 percent sales tax will reap $7.5 million in new sewer line projects for Juneau.

But Juneau's plan for using the money is causing some confusion.

Some north Douglas residents, such as Lee Dye, said conflicting information from the city has been circulating through their neighborhoods about when new sewer lines will reach their properties, and who will get it first.

"I gave up trying to find out," Dye said.

The city's engineering department published a rough schedule for sewer expansion from 2006 to 2009 - using the sales tax revenue - on Nov. 8.

City capital project engineer Rorie Watt said he is getting a lot of calls from residents who want to know when a sewer line will reach their property.

"The questions I get from people are, should I fix my failing drain field or should I wait to build my house," Watt said.

Some north Douglas residents said their neighbors have decided to go ahead and purchase new septic systems, though they worry that they will fail due to poor soil drainage in the area. A new septic system can cost $10,000 to $15,000.

Dye lost his patience with the city years ago and said he doesn't call anymore to find out what is going on. "If you walk up and down the (north Douglas) beach, you can tell that many septic systems aren't working," he said.

Dye said sewer service should be one of the top priorities of government. "It's a public health issue," he said.

"If somebody has a failing drain field ... they shouldn't hang their hat" on a sewer line reaching their property in three years, Watt said.

Instead of just quoting the engineering department's Nov. 8 sewer expansion schedule, Watt said he has been "more cautious" in predicting when Juneau residents can expect to get hooked in.

The city is reasonably confident that the first two projects - Commercial Boulevard and North Douglas Phase 1 - will proceed to construction in 2006 and 2007, respectively, Watt said.

But beyond 2007, the likelihood of sewer expansion projects sticking to a 2005-estimated schedule is murky due to a lack of planning, funding and public process so far.

Tax revenue will only pay for half of the projects' cost. The actual total is about $14 million, Watt said.

Juneau will have to nail down additional grants and seek homeowner fees for local sewer improvement districts to pay the total cost, Watt said.

One big point of confusion in north Douglas is where the city will begin building the sewer line in the southern or northern part of their community.

Watt confirmed Friday that the Bayview subdivision in north Douglas will beat out everybody waiting for new sewer service under the 1 percent sales tax.

The long-awaited Bayview project - involving a pipeline trenched through the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge - is not being funded through the 1 percent sales tax. With its funding and permits already in place, the Bayview project could go to construction this spring.

Using the sales tax revenue, Juneau plans to tackle sewer expansion along Industrial Boulevard first, potentially awarding contracts between September and November 2006.

The city plans to award contracts on the first phase of the north Douglas project between January and March 2007. Construction will start at the Douglas Bridge and proceed north, Watt said.

It is too early to tell how far the city will be able to extend the sewer line in the first phase of the north Douglas project, Watt said. The city engineers haven't yet developed a staff opinion on how to build the line, he said.

That means people such as Dye will have to wait a little longer to find out when they'll be able to hook into sewer.

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