City of Huntington Creates Water Quality Board Combining Wastewater, Stormwater and Flood Wall Operations

Historically, the City of Huntington, West Virginia operated three municipal services related to management of the water quality and quantity in and around City proper under separately established municipal corporate organizations: 1) the Huntington Flood Wall Division, 2) the Huntington Storm Water Division and 3) the Huntington Sanitary Board. Each of these organizations were established by the City’s Fathers in response to separate historic events like the Great Flood of 1937, and the passage of portions of the Federal Clean Water Act. 

These three areas of water management and quality were developed separately under different legal and social requirements: Sanitary sewer service was developed early in the history of the city, and by 1960, the city had constructed a wastewater treatment plant to provide sewage treatment for city residents and businesses. The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the related West Virginia Water Pollution Control Act obligated the city to meet applicable regulatory standards under those programs for the provision of sanitary sewer services.   The City’s flood wall was constructed in response to the 1937 Ohio River “Superflood” by the City with state and federal assistance. The storm water utility was initiated in response to state and federal mandates to implement storm water management and pollution control measures. Each of these programs was developed and operated under separate legal mandates and operational control by the city and its subsidiary divisions or boards.

The Flood Control Acts of 1936, 1937 and 1938 were signed into law by President Roosevelt in response to major flooding throughout the US in the 1930s including the January 1937 “Super Flood” that inundated Huntington. The Flood Acts of 1936, 1937 provided options and funding for flood control measures for communities along the Ohio River valley, though construction of the floodwall in Huntington required Huntington’s City Leaders to take (at the time controversial) necessary measures for land appropriation before federal funding could be obtained for the floodwall. As a federal flood project, Huntington’s operation and maintenance of the floodwall and levee system is subject to applicable federal regulations which include inspection, maintenance and monitoring of the floodwall and levee systems.

Prior to creation of the Water Quality Board, the Huntington Sanitary Board (“HSB”) operated the sewage collection and wastewater treatment systems for the City. Operations are regulated pursuant to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and the corresponding West Virginia Water Pollution Control Act. The CWA was first passed in 1972, and required cities like Huntington to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit, and comply with the permit’s terms and conditions. Those terms and conditions required Huntington to treat wastewater discharges from its wastewater treatment plant in a manner that would meet applicable standards, and most important to this discussion, to address sewer overflows from its combined sewer system.

Finally, under the Federal Clean Water Act and its West Virginia counterpart Water Pollution Control Act, Huntington is required to obtain and implement a NPDES permit for its municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4). MS4s are defined as sewer systems that are designed or used to collect or convey storm water, are not a combined sewer and are owned by a state, city, town, village or other public entity that discharge to water of the United States.

Huntington’s legal obligations for operating its flood wall, sanitary sewer and MS4 have previously been accomplished by separate organizations under the Huntington municipal corporate form. The requirements of the separate programs include numerous areas of overlap where each separate program is required to accomplish in effect the same activity. Examples include:

  1. Pollution prevention – Requirements under the flood control act, the CSO program and MS4 program all mandate best practices be employed to keep streets, catch basins and drainage structures clean and clear of trash and debris.
  2. Public education and involvement – A program to keep citizens and businesses informed of program requirements, and to solicit input and involvement from stakeholders is core to all three programs.
  3. Record keeping – Both the CSO program and MS4 programs require extensive record keeping and mapping that can be accomplished as an integrated program.
  4. Operations – historically Huntington has often be required to address a sewer repair event with the deployment of personnel from more than one division (i.e. a Sanitary Board crew and a Storm Water Division crew) to accomplish the same repairs.

Because the management of water and wastewater throughout Huntington’s history has been in response to events like the Great Flood of 1937 and the passage of various parts of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and 2004, Huntington found itself with multiple Divisions/Board functions that were uncoordinated. In order to rectify this situation, On June 23, 2014, Huntington City Council passed an Ordinance merging the three primary operations that protect water quality and manage water quantity throughout Huntington into the newly created Huntington Water Quality Board (“HWQB”). As a result, assets, liabilities and personnel currently assigned to the Flood Wall Division and Storm Water Division of the City, and assets, liabilities and personnel currently assigned to the Sanitary Board will be transferred to the Huntington Water Quality Board. Legal obligations under the various Divisions of the City and the Sanitary Board will be transferred to the HWQB.

The HWQB will establish accounts and budgets as necessary and required by State and Federal law.   Because of West Virginia Public Service Commission requirements, the HWQB will separately account for fees and funds dedicated to operation of the sanitary sewer portion of is operation. In order to address the non-sanitary sewer system obligations of the HWQB, the HWQB has established a separate fee structure to fund operations and capital improvements. The fee structure will be established in a way to provide a hardship reduction for those City residents who meet established poverty guidelines.

Although combining the utility function of sanitary sewer service and storm water management are not unique in West Virginia, it is still a relatively new operating model. However, the inclusion of floodwall and levee operations into the same utility service organization by Huntington is a first. Other communities that operate floodwall and levee systems will likely find that the efficiencies gained though utility combination provide a new opportunity to ensure the provision of public services at the highest levels without significant new costs.

A copy of the Water Quality Board Ordinance can be viewed here.

Richard Lewis practices in the areas of domestic and international business law with a focus on environmental and energy-related legal matters. He represents clients general business negotiations and before federal, state and appellate courts and administrative agencies in civil, criminal, and penalty proceedings.
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