Tri-City begins outreach campaign

A photo of a cesspool taken in 2009 is one example of the poor condition of the wastewater disposal system in the Tri-City Regional Sanitary District area. Image provided.

Editor's note: This report has been edited to clarify a quote by Mike Krebs of PACE Advanced Water Engineering.

The Tri-City Regional Sanitary District (TRSD) held a series of informational meetings last week to inform district residents of progress on the project that intends to bring a state-of-the-art sewer system to a region that has long functioned with a patchwork of outdated — and often illegal — wastewater disposal systems.

Much of the random assortment of cesspools, banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, and septic systems are either failing or in a state of disrepair.

The Rural Communities Assistance Corporation (RCAC) hosted three well-orchestrated and well-attended meetings, providing a professional aspect to the presentation residents have yet to see from the district.

There is even a new website devoted to the project at featuring project background, maps, schedules for outreach meetings, as well as documentation including the preliminary engineering report (PER), the project’s environmental assessment and the USDA-Rural Development Executive Project Summary.

An extensive FAQ section provides information on such topics as project benefits; expected effects on property values and background information about why the existing system is inadequate.

Jake Garrett, manager of the Gila County wastewater department, as well as Rob Lanford of the USDA-RD were also on hand to answer questions about the project and its funding.

“The district has not been able to really do this presentation because we didn't have all the information,” lead engineer Mike Krebs of PACE Advanced Water Engineering said. “We had a lot of that information done for nine months, but the most important information was USDA and how they were going to support the project and what they were going to bring to the table.”

What USDA has brought to the table is funding for a project that has been in the works since 2011 and is decades overdue.

“When people first started digging holes around here, they needed some place to go to the bathroom,” Garrett said. “And so the common thing to do in those days was to use a cesspool — first an outhouse and then a cesspool.”

Building cesspools began in the late 1800s and early 1900s and some of them are still around, according to Garrett. Since cesspools were made illegal by the EPA in 1976, “If you have a cesspool in your home and you flush the toilet, you broke the law,” he said.

Rather than build a system back then, Gila County decided to eliminate cesspools by attrition. To determine how many cesspools are still being used, Garrett had to do a lot of legwork, starting with the assessor’s office and then interviewing “old-timer” contractors to find out when they stopped installing cesspools.

His department determined cesspool instillation stopped around 1965, although there were still a few done as late as 1970, but there was no “systems guidance” on what to do instead.

“The rules I saw followed were ‘well, daddy said to do this,’” Garrett said. “So what people did was what made sense at the time and what they thought was appropriate. What daddy told them and what’s done today: there’s really no resemblance.”

Systems built up to about 1989 are “very, very deficient,” Garrett said. “They don’t do the job they’re supposed to do.”

TRSD used those numbers to determine that 89 percent of the systems within district boundaries are deficient. Additionally, many of the affected homes do not have sufficient space on their lots to upgrade to a septic system, hence the need for a functioning sewer system in the area.

The remainder of the two-hour meeting was devoted to detailed explanations of the PER with the aid of maps and schematics showing the project details, from topographical challenges — and the need for lift stations — to the submersible pumps that will function during possible historic flood events.

Resident Hope Palmer said that Hayden and Winkelman had sewer systems built and now “they are turning into ghost towns,” because the property taxes are too high.

Those towns are “poor like we are in Claypool,” and are living on Social Security.

“So they’re having to move off their properties,” she said.

After some discussion later in the meeting, district counsel Bill Clemmens suggested Palmer reach out to the assessor’s office to determine if she qualifies for a tax reduction.

When the question of a vote came up, TRSD board member and longtime sewer advocate Mary Anne Moreno explained the “Assessment District Process,” whereby every property owner in the district will have the opportunity to protest the project.

“The fact of the matter is, every property owner will have the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t want this,’ or ‘I do want this,’” Moreno said. “It’s not a ballot issue like you would have in a general election.”

She added that if the issue went to vote, it would not take place until November 2019, which would push the project back another year. Additionally, the people who could vote in such and election “are not necessarily the property owners,” but “qualified electors residing in the district.”

Moreno said that is whoever is registered to vote in the district, “who’s living there: not necessarily the homeowners.”

“We felt the homeowners, the property owners, really need to be the ones who make this decision,” she said. “Not just someone who resides who may or may not be registered to vote.”

In a subsequent interview, Krebs outlined the next steps in the public outreach process the district hopes to begin by Thanksgiving.

To reach as many residents as possible, TRSD must advertise in the local newspaper of record and send mailings to each landowner in the district.

Additionally, about 700 signs will be posted every 300 feet apart along the pipeline’s route.

“That’s the kickoff of the ‘last days of protest,’” Krebs said. “Then we have 15 days left: Once they get the letter, they need to do something.”

The vote will be based on the frontage of each property, Krebs said. If the property has 50 feet of frontage, that will equal 50 votes. If it has 100 feet of frontage, 100 votes.

All the footage will be added up and if the protestors come up one foot above 50 percent, the project will not go forward, and the funding will go back to the USDA.

The next meeting of the TRSD will take place at the IBEW building, located at 1383 N. Hwy. 188, in Globe on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 5:15 p.m.

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