Levee grant to ease burden on sewer rates


Warwick sewer customers got some welcome news last week: they won’t have to bear the full cost of elevating the levee at the wastewater treatment plant.

After years of diligence and persistence on the part of the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Friday the approval of $3.6 million to cover 90 percent of the project to upgrade flood protection measures at the facility, which was overcome by Pawtuxet River floodwaters in the spring of 2010. The flooding inundated the treatment plant, causing its shutdown as well as the adjoining Warwick Animal Shelter. Damages totaled $14 million, which insurance paid for.

With plans to upgrade treatment facilities to further reduce the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous to meet the Department of Environmental Management permit, projected to cost $16 million, the sewer authority planned to elevate the levee by an additional 5½ feet at a projected cost of $5 million. Earlier this year, the City Council approved up to $23 million in revenue bonds for the work. Those bonds are to be paid off through user fees.

While a ceremonial groundbreaking is in the planning stages, some preliminary work has already begun. The sewer authority has awarded a $14,479,000 contract to Hart Engineering Corp. of Lincoln to do the levee work and build the phosphorous removal building. Material excavated for the foundation of the building and processing tanks will be used to heighten the levee, Lynn Owens of the Sewer Authority said yesterday.

“This is a very cost-efficient process,” she said.

The project is being overseen by AECOM Technical Services Inc. and is projected for completion in the fall of 2016.

With most of the levee cost being paid for by the federal grant, Warwick sewer customers will get some relief.

Authority director Janine Burke said the authority first applied for federal funding to raise the levee in November 2010.

“Back then it was $7 million,” she said.

But as the authority “tweaked” cost estimates, the price kept coming down. Burke said merging the work with the upgrades required of the treatment plant further reduced the cost.

“Anytime we don’t have to borrow money, it’s great,” she said of the award. She said the grant would enable the authority “to take another look at borrowing for the rest of the project.”

She said with the grant, the authority would look at rate studies going forward, to stabilizing rates and minimizing the increases.

Approval of the federal funding at 90 percent of the cost of the project brought a shower of applause from state and city officials. Senator Jack Reed, who authored the provision to increase the federal share from 75 to 90 percent, commended FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for his personal intervention to get this project moving.

“The strength of our local economy depends on the health of our water resources, so this project is a wise investment for public health and safety as well as the environment and economy,” said Senator Reed.

In a release, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said, “Sensible improvements like these will go a long way in reducing the risks from future flooding, and keeping our communities safe and healthy.”

Congressman Jim Langevin and Gov. Lincoln Chafee likewise hailed the grant, as did Mayor Scott Avedesian.

“These improvements will address past vulnerabilities at the treatment facility and help to ensure that the system can remain operational should another catastrophe occur – protecting our residents and business community alike from disruption. Securing this funding took time, cooperation and patience on the part of the many people who worked together to secure FEMA’s funding approval,” Mayor Avedisian said in a statement.

News of the award elicited a jubilant call from Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. Ladouceur chairs the Council Sewer Review Commission that, after scores of hearings, was instrumental in gaining council approval of revenue bonds for treatment facility improvements, as well as $33 million to extend sewers to six communities. Throughout the study process, Ladouceur has been focused on means to reduce costs to sewer users and in expanding the system.

The proposed flood mitigation measures outlined in the project application are threefold: raise the existing levee to the 500-year flood level, with a two-foot safety factor; add a toe drain system to keep groundwater below the inside portion of the levee and allow the levee to remain stable during future flooding events; and modify the existing storm drain system. All three measures are intended to reduce the chance of future flood damages to the wastewater facility buildings and equipment, as that which occurred during the March 2010 storm.


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