By Ryan Mavity and Chris Flood | Oct 28, 2014

 

While Rehoboth Beach officials await a decision on funding for a $35 million ocean outfall project, a proposal by Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to tie improvements to existing stormwater outfalls to the loan was rejected due to uncertainty over costs and construction details.

REHOBOTH BEACH — A deal that would have tied in Rehoboth Beach’s wastewater outfall project to improvements to the city’s stormwater outfalls never got off the ground, Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper said.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control had floated the idea of the city taking on a larger loan than the $35 million needed to pay for the ocean outfall, Cooper said. The extra money would have been used to extend Rehoboth’s existing stormwater outfalls out further into the ocean.

Rehoboth officials have been waiting for more than a year for a decision on an environmental impact statement required to obtain state funding for the ocean outfall. The cost of the outfall project is $35 million: $25 million for the outfall and the force main and $10 million for improvements to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The state’s Water Infrastructure Advisory Council has approved a loan for plant improvements.

Cooper said DNREC’s proposal never advanced beyond initial discussions and never got to the point of a quid pro quo: approval of the ocean outfall in exchange for taking on a larger loan for stormwater outfall improvements. Cooper said he favors the stormwater outfall extensions, but he does not think it should be tied into the ocean outfall.

“The stormwater outfalls are far more impactful to swimmers than the wastewater outfall will ever be,” he said.

Officials from DNREC did not respond to requests for comment.

The city is under court order to stop dumping its treated effluent in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal by the end of this year.

Cooper said the cost of extending stormwater outfalls has not been established; Rehoboth officials don’t want to commit to that project without knowing the details.

Two local stewards of the ocean – the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the MERR Institute – continue to question the outfall and say they are not impressed that DNREC would attempt give the go-ahead on the controversial project with a you-scratch-our-back-and-we’ll-scratch-yours attitude.

John Doerfler, Delaware Surfrider Chapter vice chair, said the group has never been in favor of the outfall as a solution to Rehoboth’s wastewater. Through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the Surfriders point to a letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that was part of the comments associated with Rehoboth’s environmental impact statement. In that letter, NOAA states the ocean outfall would have an adverse impact on the essential fish habitat. Doerfler estimates the outfall is going to cost an additional $40 million due to NOAA requests for the permitting.

“But what we’re really against, as should every other taxpayer, is the backroom deals DNREC is trying to push in order to approve the outfall for Rehoboth,” said Doerfler. “Demanding action on an entirely different project in order to permit another project is not only inappropriate, but immoral.”

Cooper said the impact of the outfall on fish has been considered and all available data was submitted to DNREC. He said ocean waters would be tested before and after construction of the outfall.

Suzanne Thurman, MERR Institute executive director, said she has not heard about DNREC’s proposal from the department, but she is aware of rumors.

She said she wants to believe DNREC wouldn’t make such a proposal because it seems so unethical.

“Both situations are huge sources of pollution, and one doesn’t cancel the other out,” she said.

Thurman said would prefer that DNREC work towards the improvements to the stormwater infrastructure for the sake of the environment, but she speculates that tourism dollars could be behind such a request.

Thurman said Rehoboth’s beaches dropped from a five-star beach in 2013 to a four-star beach in 2014 in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s annual beach cleanliness rating. She thinks it could have been because one of the testing sites is near a stormwater pipe discharge.

“We all know they lost a star last year,” she said.

Obtaining the loan for the wastewater outfall requires a referendum. Cooper said he is confident the $35 million price tag is secure, and adding another, more uncertain cost to the project could be a difficult sell.

This is especially true because 40 percent of the borrowing for the wastewater outfall is on behalf of Sussex County, he said; Rehoboth’s plant treats the wastewater of Dewey Beach, Henlopen Acres and North Shores. The city has incrementally raised wastewater rates since 2009 in order to soften the blow of rates doubling once the outfall is in place.

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