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Something stinky this way comes

It was decidedly not a good week for your intrepid columnist. Here's why: At about 5:30 p.m. a week ago Tuesday, the late-Victorian tranquility of our 106-year-old house on the West Side was suddenly interrupted by the sound of rushing water in the basement. First assumption: a burst waterline. Inconvenient, but hardly more than that -- just go downstairs, shut off the water, fix the problem.

But, that wasn't the problem. It was the city sewer, back-flowing right through my basement sump pump, spewing a fountain of raw sewage five feet in the air, at a rate of 50 or 60 gallons per minute. I ran upstairs and started calling emergency services.

Within a few minutes, I learned that four of my neighbors were experiencing the same nightmarish problem. Roto-Rooter couldn't do a thing; a city utilities crew would have to come out to clear the main sewer line. We made frantic calls; and then we waited. And waited. And waited. After more than an hour, a crew arrived, only to announce that everything looked just fine from their end. And, indeed, my basement sewage fountain had stopped, leaving me, and my neighbors, with the cleanup from hell. Just imagine a foul lagoon, composed entirely of urine, feces, vomit, toilet paper, dishwater, and the occasional used condom.

The utilities guys were pleasant, professional, and, when asked who was gonna pay to clean up the mess, less than encouraging. They handed us a little form letter, which expressed frosty bureaucratic remorse for "this unfortunate incident," and pointed out that unless we, the injured parties, could prove that the city's negligence had caused the incident, we were SOL.

Of course, the letter pointed out, we'd be fine if we'd signed up for the insurance program that the city itself offers to utility customers to protect them from just such "unfortunate incidents."

But time and turds wait for no man -- rather than have my house become a permanent biohazard, I hired one of those emergency cleanup outfits, wrote 'em a big check, and resigned myself to months of wrangling with utility bureaucrats.

But I wondered, just why did this happen? Was it an inevitable consequence of operating a complex wastewater/sewage disposal system, or is it a symptom of a much larger problem?

Since the 1950s, our city-owned utility system has been driven by two simple policies: support growth and keep rates low. Growth creates jobs (good for business!) and low rates keep the voters happy (good for politicians!). Thanks to apparently brilliant, foresighted decisions by city pols and utility honchos, we managed to implement both policies for many years. We expanded our water, gas and electric utilities with minimal rate increases and seemingly achieved cost-free growth. But, in fact, the growth had its costs in opportunities missed and in maintenance deferred.

In the '70s and'80s, we spent millions and wasted years, fruitlessly attempting to enforce our "rights" to water in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Why? Because it was the cheapest alternative. And when, as a councilman in the early'90s, I suggested that we acquire natural gas reserves to protect ratepayers against market fluctuations, the idea went nowhere: too expensive.

Supporting growth, Utilities has invested hundreds of millions in system expansion, both encouraging and serving an ever-growing population. System maintenance has never been a priority; although utility honchos will deny it, their guiding philosophy is simple: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's why older neighborhoods have overhead power lines, rather than modern underground systems (in fact, the city's official policy, unbelievably enough, is that residents of older neighborhoods should themselves pay the full cost of such a system upgrade!). And that's why much of the water/sewer delivery system on the West Side, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, is a mess.

I could give you a score of examples, but here's the most recent (and telling) one. According to one of the utility guys clearing our recent blockage, a portion of the sewer line consists of clay pipe, which, he opined, is at least 100 years old.

We all -- every one of us -- pay, and pay a lot for utility services. Moreover, the taxes and fees paid by residents of our older neighborhoods have financed the system's expansion. It's a little ironic that those neighborhoods have been ignored and shortchanged while our leaders spent their time whoring after the bitch-goddess of growth. We pay; others benefit.

But we learn from our misfortunes. I'm happy, I guess, that I've finally learned the true meaning of a once-fashionable bumper sticker.

Shit Happens ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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