Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Water, Sewer Plan: Massive improvements, major rate hikes proposed over next 2 decades.

Capital Region Water, at work

Capital Region Water announced plans today to spend more than $315 million over the next 20 years upgrading the city’s antiquated sewer system, which will bring Harrisburg into compliance with federal guidelines and carry a cumulative 150 percent increase to water and sewer rates.

Known collectively as City Beautiful H2O, the improvements come following years of deferred maintenance to Harrisburg’s centuries-old combined sewer system. CRW says the updates will reduce sewer discharge into natural waterways, enhance sewer efficiency, and improve neighborhoods through the implementation of green storm water management systems.

The improvements also will significantly raise the rate burden for city households.

The draft plan includes an extensive affordability assessment that helped CRW set rate projections for the next 20 years. The analysis, which considered local unemployment rates, poverty rates and income distributions, concluded that many CRW ratepayers have significant financial limitations that preclude aggressive rate hikes.

As a result, CRW decided to seek the lengthiest improvement schedule permitted by federal environmental agencies, giving the water authority 20 years to complete the projects. Water and sewage rates are set to increase by a cumulative 150 percent over that time period.

The rate increases will be most dramatic in the next decade, with annual 10 percent hikes projected from 2019 to 2022. After reaching a 106-percent cumulative increase in 2027, rates hikes will level off to just 2 percent a year from 2027 to 2038.

Given the rate increases, CRW expects a jump in the number of households burdened by their water bills. Under federal affordability guidelines, a household is considered “cost burdened” if it spends more than 2 percent of its annual income paying for water and sewage.

Currently, the median household income (MHI) in Harrisburg is just under $34,000. A family earning the MHI can expect to spend 1 percent of its income on its water bills in 2018, according to the report.

By 2027, however, that household will likely spend 2 percent of its income paying bills to CRW. That 2 percent rate will continue until the plan reaches its projected completion in 2038.

CRW set rates so that an average household will not spend more than 2 percent of its annual income on water, but households earning less than the median income could face significant burdens.

“It is anticipated that there will still be affordability issues for some customers within the City, with some customers experiencing wastewater and storm water costs as a percentage of income exceeding 3.0 percent,” the report says.

CRW published the full draft plan on its website this afternoon, and also announced a series of public meetings to solicit feedback from rate payers. The first open-house meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at Sylvan Heights Science Charter School, 915 S. 13th Street in Harrisburg.

“This Draft Program Plan is a responsible approach addressing system-wide infrastructure deterioration with high-priority water quality compliance activities,” said Capital Region Water Board Chairman Marc Kurowski in a press release. “We hope our customers take time to provide feedback and make it the best plan possible.”

The draft plan is part of CRW’s response to a partial consent decree it negotiated with the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection in late 2014. Earlier that year, the EPA alleged that sewage runoff in Harrisburg violated the federal Clean Water Act and PA Clean Streams Law.

Like many old cities, Harrisburg has a combined sewer system, or CSO, where the storm drains connect to same sewer system as toilets and showers.

When it’s not raining, all the contents of the sewer system flow to a treatment plant on Cameron Street, where they are cleaned and then discharged into the Susquehanna River. But heavy rain can cause the system to overflow, sending untreated water into the river and Paxton Creek.

Under state and federal environmental laws, Harrisburg would have faced financial penalties for those runoff incidents. After a year of negotiations, however, the EPA agreed to spare the city financial penalties, as long as CRW agreed to update its long-term plan for the city’s sewer system.

CRW has set the following public meetings to present its City Beautiful H2O plan:

Thursday, Feb. 15
6 to 8 p.m. (visit any time)
Sylvan Heights Science Charter School
915 S. 13th St., Harrisburg

Wednesday, Feb. 21
6 to 8 p.m. (visit any time)
Lincoln School
1601 State St., Harrisburg

Thursday, March 1
6 to 8 p.m. (visit any time)
Camp Curtin YMCA
2135 N. 6th St., Harrisburg

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