Sewer capacity issues could cripple local development

sewer-capacity-iconMemphis is collecting data and working on solutions for a looming problem that could cripple development for several years. A sanitary sewer capacity issue could force a commercial and residential development freeze for most of Bartlett and Cordova, part of Lakeland and all of Wolfchase.

On Monday, Robert Knecht, Memphis Public Works director, explained the sewer capacity issues with the 35-square-mile Fletcher Creek drainage basin, which one 2017 study estimated is at 95-98 percent capacity already.

Several very concerned developers have already contacted Bartlett with questions, but all that Bartlett’s leaders have seen so far is the Memphis notification letter sent to developers. Bartlett currently contracts with Memphis for wastewater removal.

Rick McClanahan, director of the Bartlett engineering department, said his office is looking for direction from Memphis, as the capacity issue currently leaves a large issue of the Fletcher Creek basin hanging.

“This is all relatively new,” he said. “… We’re still trying to evaluate what total impact this will have on the city to determine exactly how we need to address the issue.”

McClanahan said, “We are seeking answers from Memphis about the status of the capacity issue, and we would like to get as much information provided to us as they can about how quickly this can be resolved. We feel like it should be resolved in a timely fashion and are hoping they can resolve it effectively.”

Memphis has been monitoring sewer capacity closely since a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent sanitary sewer overflows.

“This is not something we take lightly,” Knecht said. “We have serious responsibilities, and we have serious determination to come up with solutions.”

The in-house model used for estimating capacity has just been based on land utilization, he said. New methods of estimating capacity take into consideration current developments, future ones that have already been approved, and other factors, such as the system’s pipe sizes.

Memphis is also installing 15 more flow monitors in the mainline collection system to gauge the actual flow of sewage. Public Works started this in 2016, when the department installed monitors in the upper part of the system by Germantown Parkway near Interstate 40 and expanded it to where it connects with the Wolf River interceptor.

Knecht said there should be a report back by August with much more information on the system. “What we did in the past didn’t give us this kind of detail,” he explained.

He said a complete analysis for all the involved drainage basins should be finished within two years.

“We’re trying to do what’s right,” Knecht said. “We can’t extend sewers anymore until we do this analysis.”

Memphis operates the largest sewer system in the state, with 3,200 miles of pipes, he said. “There’s a lot to do to understand what’s going on.”

Some future developments are already included in the sewer system’s capacity estimates, and more can’t be added on top of that if the additions would cause overflow.

Knecht said his office began advising developers two months ago when the capacity issue came to light. In the short term, developers may have to modify their construction schedules or look into other alternatives.

The developers who are hurting the most are the ones who have been stuck in the planning phases for a long time, he said. Many started developments before 2008 but suspended them when the economy tanked. Now that the economy is better, they want to get projects moving again but are faced with the sewer capacity issue. Projects in the early stages may not be approved currently.

Knecht said one option is to construct tanks in the collection system to absorb some of the flow at peak and then meter that out so the system could function properly.

The long-term solution would be to add another sanitary sewer system parallel to the existing one. Knecht estimated this would take two to three years and could cost as much as $10 million.

He explained that no sewer costs are paid by taxes. Everything is paid by sewer fees. Surrounding municipalities that rely upon the Memphis system pay for the service. About $130 million per year goes into the sewer fund, covering all operations.

Memphis just raised its sewer fees in 2018 to cover planned expenditures of more than $1 billion on the collection and treatment system over the next 10 years, he said. “There’s a lot we need to do, and it’s going to be very expensive.”

Another rate increase is planned to go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Knecht said his office will keep examining ways for the system to operate more efficiently and for his office to prioritize, gauge what is really needed and when it is needed.

He added, “We’re looking at adjustments with our contracts.”

He concluded, “We’re focused on helping to come up with solutions. We’re not trying to stop development – that’s not what we’re about.”

CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to