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Public Services Considers System Upgrades To Keep Up With Development

Aug 04, 2015 09:34AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

Higher density developments such as Fireclay have forced Murray City to reevaluate the design of its wastewater system

By Scott Bartlett

Murray Public Services officials don’t want to be the bottleneck as Murray grows. This means spending money now to upgrade public services systems, specifically the city’s wastewater infrastructure, in the hopes that it will save money later and ensure that development can occur.

The city’s sewer system generally flows to the north and to the west. It connects to a main line and then runs to the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, which processes wastewater from several cities, including Taylorsville, Cottonwood Heights, Kearns and Murray. The facility treats millions of gallons of wastewater each day. Effluent, or treated wastewater, is discharged into Mill Creek

As reported by Doug Hill, Murray Public Services director, in a May committee meeting, Murray’s six-year-old wastewater plan is based on development occurring at 50 units per acre. Projects are now being proposed at over 100 units per acre. Hill is concerned about spending money on wastewater upgrades designed for a lower density when developers are pursuing much higher density projects.

In cities such as Murray with relatively little vacant land available for new development, developers typically pursue projects that increase existing density. Cities then have to plan for these market-driven realities.

With an undersized wastewater system, the city may face a situation where its planning and zoning department approves a project, only to have the wastewater department say it can’t be done.

“We don’t want to be in a position where wastewater is holding up development,” said Hill.

But Hill doesn’t want to spend too much money by overdesigning the system, either. He and his staff have looked for the middle ground in which the wastewater system is adequately sized. Spending on an undersized or an oversized system would both mean money wasted—like nearly flushing money down the drain.

For instance, the city has current plans to spend $1 million to upgrade sewer lines along 900 West and 4800 South. That design is based on 50 units per acre. As higher density development occurs, those same lines would have to be replaced well before they otherwise would, meaning the city would be spending money twice on the same project.

Going too large, however, would mean a system that runs mostly empty, like building a freeway in anticipation of traffic that never comes.

Seeking that middle ground, Hill has suggested designing the system for 100 units per acre. He and his staff have identified 18 “pinch points” in the system that would have to be upsized at a cost of approximately $3 million.

Upgrading the system based on 75 units per acre would cost approximately $2 million, and may not be large enough to handle whatever development occurs.

Higher-density developments have been a big part of Murray’s economy. The Fireclay development, one of Murray’s newer projects located in its transportation-oriented district, is 130 units per acre. According to Hill, the transportation-oriented districts with mixed use zones and downtown zones have unlimited density. City staff averaged those areas with the city’s lower-density zones to arrive at the recommended 100 units per acre design for the wastewater system.

For comparison, Salt Lake City’s City Creek development is 300 units per acre, with Gateway housing coming in at a range of 150 to 300 units per acre. Averaging all of Salt Lake’s 10-acre downtown area yields 20 units per acre.

As with any planning endeavor, each decision carries risk. Do nothing, wait for more development and react once it arrives, and risk delaying or prohibiting otherwise feasible projects. Spend money on a smaller system and risk having to spend it again – and more – should the system prove inadequate. Or, spend more money on a larger system now and risk the increased capacity going unused, with the potential of other needed projects going unfunded to pay for an empty sewer system.

Hill believes the 100 unit per acre design is the right call, and that waiting to upgrade the system would be much more expensive later. This balancing act of expenditure and planning will affect both the city’s available funds and its economy as the city continues to grow.

There is currently $3.5 million in the city’s reserve wastewater fund. Policy allows for $2 million of the reserve fund to be spent on the proposed upgrades.

Impact fees, which are charges levied when a new user connects to the system and is a common practice for most any utility, would recoup some of the project cost. Hill’s goal is to complete the proposed upgrades without increasing wastewater fees, which would mean residents of lower-density areas would not have to subsidize project costs for their new, higher-density neighbors.

In some ways, public service systems like sewers are like sports referees: as long as they’re doing their job, people hardly notice they’re even there. It’s a thankless and dirty job, but an important one. 


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