PORTLAND – The way Joe Payne sees it is, 31 years stretches the word “late” a bit too far.

Payne, the baykeeper for Friends of Casco Bay, said Portland was supposed to cut off 33 of its 39 combined sewer overflows by 2008, and its latest proposal — to get the expensive job done by 2039 — isn’t acceptable.

“They dragged their feet for a long time, making very little progress,” Payne said. Stretching it out as far as 2039 is “just too long.”

The City Council will hold a workshop on the matter Monday in preparation for a decision on a timetable for the project.

The issue revolves around stormwater and sewage running off into Casco Bay. For years, the city had a combined sewer system: Stormwater from the streets went into the same pipes that carried household and industrial sewage. The combined liquid flowed into the city’s treatment plan on the East End.

The system generally worked well except when there was heavy rain, or rain combined with snowmelt, and the pipes filled up. To keep the system from being overwhelmed and backing up, the city built relief points where the water — and untreated sewage, plus salt, oil and gas from the streets — flowed into the Fore River, Back Cove, Casco Bay, Portland Harbor and streams and rivers.

The federal Environmental Protection Administration and the city signed a consent decree in 1993, with Portland agreeing to get rid of most of the overflows by 2008. But the work has fallen behind — only nine of the projected 33 overflow points are closed, three years after the original deadline, although the EPA has agreed to several extensions over the years.

Portland’s first approach was to separate the systems, with sewage going into some pipes and stormwater into others. The sewage got treated, but the stormwater didn’t, and the project was expensive.

Now, the city plans to build huge concrete conduits underground that would hold a lot more water. When the rain is heavy, those conduits would be counted on to hold the sewage and runoff until the water treatment plant can catch up with the flow.

Payne said he’s 100 percent behind that new approach, but not the timetable.

Michael Bobinsky, the city’s director of public services, said the steep price of the fix is a big reason for taking 25 years for the next phase, starting in 2014.

“Our concern at the end of the day is the affordability and the best way to manage those high costs,” he said.

Bobinsky said a “very preliminary” estimate for the work is $170 million. That cost will be reflected in sharply higher sewer bills.

The average household pays $450 a year in sewer fees, he said. That’s expected to triple by the time the next phase is done, whether that’s 15 years — Payne’s preferred approach — or 25 years.

After that, the increases should level off but fees are likely to remain high to keep up with the improvements needed to meet what’s expected to be more-stringent water-quality requirements, Bobinsky said.

The 25-year plan would require fee increases of 10 percent each year, he said. The run-up under a 15-year plan would jump 12 percent to 15 percent most years, he said.

Compressing the work schedule could also be a challenge for city engineers who will design the system and oversee the work, he said.

Payne said his group’s concern is the continuing damage to the bay’s water quality from untreated sewage flowing into it while the city works to correct the problem.

He said that getting the job done quicker might be a little harder on ratepayers up front, but getting the work out of the way would be better for the environment and the community in the long run.

Payne noted there’s no guarantee that a 25-year plan might not fall behind.

“It’s actually going to be 45 or 50 years,” he said. “On to 2039 or whatever, Portland will still be dumping raw sewage into the bay.”

Friends of Casco Bay is mobilizing its membership, urging its Portland members to call councilors after next week’s workshop and turn out on June 20, when the council will hold a public hearing and is scheduled to vote on a plan for fixing the overflows.

“We want (members) to contact the councilors, saying they’d be willing to bear the pain for a shorter period,” Payne said, “and not be known as the city that dumps sewage into the bay.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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