DAVIS, W.Va. – Although much of the heat at Davis Town Council meetings stem from the Short-Term Rental Moratorium, another issue would greatly affect citizens in the town and is creating a significant barrier to growth in the region: wastewater. At Wednesday night’s council meeting, civil engineers from RK&K presented a facility plan to fix some issues with the town’s aging sewage system.

According to Mayor Al Tomson, the town has had issues with wastewater for a decade or more, and the problem has to do with inflow and infiltration (also known as I&I), and that’s when water from the outside, for example, rainwater, enters the sewer system through cracks in pipes, manholes, and gutters. RK&K representatives explained that they examined where those cracks are by putting smoke in the system and seeing where the smoke was coming out.

“The sanitary system as it is, most of it is terracotta lines, so like clay, and they’re broken in many places,” said Rhiannon Dodge, Associate Engineer at RK&K, in response to questions during the presentation, “I don’t know if any of you saw the smoke testing, but there was smoke everywhere. You could see where the sewer line is because every few feet, there would be smoke.”

This infographic shows examples of I&I. Courtesy: SEH

This problem causes Davis to not meet the standards set by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection of how much they can discharge into the Blackwater River. As a result, Tomson said the town got a fine of $68,000, which they were able to get reduced to $7,500 with the agreement that Davis would work on the issue.

“But if we don’t work on it, the big fines come back, and they come back repetitively and they would be correct in doing that because we’re not meeting the standards that are out there, and we can’t with the system that we have,” said Tomson.

RK&K’s proposed project works to separate storm water and the sewage system, so that storm water has a place to go and doesn’t enter the system, exceeding its capacity as it is currently doing. So, the town is looking to convert the current sewer system into a storm water system and create a brand new sewer system. What this means for homeowners in Davis is that people with in-tact sewer lines would have to move their connection to the new sewer, and people with broken connections would have to replace their lines. Right now, the town is trying to save some money to help homeowners do that.

“We’re trying to save some of the American Rescue Plan dollars so that we can help people do sewer line replacements from their house to the main line,” said Tomson, “Right now, the grant money and the loan money can only be used on public infrastructure, so the sewer lines that the town owns can be funded by that, but the other lines are private. Those cannot be used for the grant and loan monies, but the American Rescue Plan dollars can be utilized for that.”

Examples of what smoke testing looks like. This is not a picture of Davis. Courtesy: SEH

RK&K estimated that phase one of the project would cost the town $5.9 million. The town is now looking at a few state and federal opportunities to get funding for this project.

How much will the water bill in Davis be increased?

According to Tomson and the RK&K representatives, Davis currently has the fourth lowest water bill in West Virginia at $15.81 per 3,400 gal. But, they say, that low rate is part of the problem, because it keeps the town from qualifying for grant money and loans, that have a formula on what the rate should be based on the town’s income. In order to get funding for the sewer system, RK&K recommends raising the rate to either $52.86 or $56.59 per 3,400 gal–an increase of nearly four times the current rate.

“It’s a big jump as opposed to if this had been started 10 years ago, and there was a gradual, slow increase over time it wouldn’t be as noticeable, and it wouldn’t be as quite frankly, for some people, devastating,” explained Tomson, “It’s a rate increase that we don’t want to do, but we don’t have any choice, and we have very little time to do it.”

Tomson said during the meeting on Wednesday that the council is looking at increasing the rates in the $50 range by April 2024, and that the increases would start soon.

Wastewater and the Housing Crisis

Blackwater Falls State Park has a great view of the Blackwater River.

One of the major issues with Davis’ wastewater system right now is that it doesn’t currently have enough capacity to grow. A 2021 report from Downstream Strategies showed that the rising housing costs are due to a major lack of workforce housing in Davis and Thomas.

The report estimated that 321 housing units were required to meet the current demand for housing, with only 192 known projects at the time. With the projected growth from Corridor H and the Virgin Hyperloop, the report said several hundred additional housing would be needed to accommodate for future growth. With the sewer capacity at its limit, though, new housing and businesses can’t hook up.

“If a developer wanted to come in and say, I want to build three houses, or five houses, or ten houses, we’d have to say, you can’t hook up to our sewer, and you’re not allowed to have a septic tank, so you’re not going to be able to build these houses,” said Tomson, “We have businesses that have wanted to come into our industrial park that we’ve had to say, you can’t hook up to our sewer, and they’ve gone away, so it’s a problem for expansion of residential property, and it’s a problem for bringing new businesses into the community, which brings jobs.”

Tomson said the council looked at alternatives like doing a combined system with Thomas, but that the system wouldn’t be big enough.

“Their sewer plant, I think, is able to handle 150,000 gallons per day, and our sewer output will probably be in the 70-80 thousand range based on today’s volume of customers. Thomas has a volume of about 60,000 gallons per day, so that takes you almost to capacity of that sewer plant and that doesn’t allow for any growth,” he said.

Davis will be holding a special meeting about the wastewater project at 6:30 on Friday, February 25 in the Town Hall, where they will be explaining more about the project and answering questions.