​Narrowing of Highway 41A Proposed Costs to SUD

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

In conjunction with plans to narrow Highway 41A, the Sewanee Utility District will be required to relocate sewer and water supply lines. At the May 19 meeting of the board of commissioners, SUD manager Ben Beavers reviewed the contract from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDOT). TDOT regulations stipulate utilities must bear the cost of relocating service lines for road projects if there is not public money available for relocation. The cost for the sewer portion alone is $400,000 in the worst-case scenario.

Board President Charlie Smith observed the developer typically paid for relocating utilities in development projects.

“The way the law is written, we will have to pay,” said Beavers. “How we recover the money is up to us. There’s nothing to say we can’t pass a special development fee for the State Route 15 corridor.” Note: State Route 15 is the state route name for Highway 41A.

The total cost for relocating sewer and water lines is half a million dollars if the plans are not changed. Beavers said there would be a utilities stakeholders meeting with TDOT next week. TDOT regulations stipulate service lines must cross the right-of-way at a 90-degree angle. All but one of SUD’s service lines are very close to the 90-degree benchmark and some are in compliance. Beavers hopes for some relaxing of the standard.

“All the sewer lines were redone in the past 15-20 years,” Beavers said. “There’s nothing wrong with them.”

“The prudent thing is to wait until we get all the facts,” Beavers said. “Once we get a final price, we need to get an official response from the University.” The highway is being narrowed in conjunction with the University’s Sewanee Village project.

The board also discussed SUD’s revenue loss due to the University sending students home and canceling summer programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beavers estimated the loss at $35,000 per month and projected a $200,000 loss for the year, a 28 percent decrease in anticipated revenue. “Once the students return, we’ll be almost back to normal,” Beavers said.

Looking for ways to mediate revenue loss, Beavers suggested stepping up SUD’s efforts to cut back on unaccounted for water loss. Unaccounted for water loss is the difference between the amount of water treated at the plant and amount registered as sold on customer meters, meaning water SUD is not paid for. Recent testing revealed only one line leak as a possible source of water loss. The other possible cause of the unaccounted for loss is meter inaccuracy. Beavers will research the cost of meter testing to determine if testing to find the source of the unaccounted for loss will pay for itself in revenue increase.

In addition to revenue loss, SUD is experiencing another problem due to the pandemic: increased flushing of disposable towelettes and masks. The towelettes and masks clog wastewater pumps and screens, driving up costs. “That’s what’s been killing our grinder pumps,” Beavers said. “A new screen cost $100,000.”

“Nothing needs to go down the toilet that’s not toilet paper or waste,” Smith said. The board is considering paid advertisements to publicize the problem.

Taking up another pandemic issue, the board agreed to allow University researchers to test wastewater for presence of the virus. Beavers noted EPA tests showed the virus is not transported by water or wastewater. The purpose of the testing would be to determine viral load trends once the students return. SUD will require a release from liability and notification when the testing will take place.