A pandemic, unprecedented snowstorm, followed by supply and staffing shortages, topped off by a longer-than-normal rainy season…bring it on! You may slow us down, but we’ve got work to do and we’re moving forward.
Over the years, inquiries piled up from customers in our “Out of District” service area wanting to convert their home from septic to the public sewer system. In 2017, Lakeway Municipal Utility District’s (LMUD’s) general manager, Earl Foster, initiated plans for extending our existing public sewer system. “We knew we’d be crossing into uncharted territory when we began developing plans to construct a public wastewater system into an existing (not to mention hilly) neighborhood, but the demand was there and it was long overdue,” said Foster.
The “Out of District Wastewater” (ODWW) Project impacts the first 17 sections of Lakeway. This neighborhood, now delignated by “Old Lakeway” signs, was developed before LMUD was established in 1972 and is considered our “Out of District” service area. Customers in this area are primarily on LCRA-regulated septic systems. Those who are connected to public sewer pay different wastewater rates from “In District” customers since they don’t pay LMUD taxes, which help pay for infrastructure development and ongoing system maintenance.
With a preliminary plan in place, in February 2018, a survey was sent out to the affected homeowners (an area of about 1,000 homes); results indicated over 80 percent would choose to connect to LMUD’s public sewer system if the option were made available.
By December 2018, the Pilot Phase of the ODWW Project was underway: connecting homes to the existing LMUD-maintained sewer main lines using a “grinder pump system” (a tank-and-pump system installed near the discharge line of a home that acts like a whole-house garbage disposal to break up solids in wastewater before it’s pushed into the public sewer system). Customers were pleased with the results, having an option other than septic when there was previously no other option available. One of these customers said, “I can’t say enough good things about what Earl and the rest of LMUD are doing for our community. They are making it doable and affordable for those of us who needed a solution for a broken septic tank, but also giving options to those who just want space to put in a pool or use their land for something other than a drain field.”
On May 21, 2019, we broke ground for the installation of the sewer main line extension for Phase 1 of the ODWW Project (all the homes around the Live Oak Golf Course). Over the next five months, we laid approx. 10,000 feet of pipe (two separate lines, for wastewater and recycled water) on the outskirts of the front 9, working along property lines in the City easement area and on the golf course’s property with granted permission.
Our crews moved on to running pipe along the back 9, as well as installing “Early Connections” (grinder pump system installations at properties near existing sewer main lines where the homeowner paid a fee to connect before it is made available to their neighbors).
On September 11, 2019, LMUD’s Board of Directors, at the regularly scheduled board meeting, approved changes to the Rate Order for FY2020 that included the decision to add system maintenance in the base rate charge for LMUD customers who use a grinder pump to connect to the public sewer system. This includes all customers who opt-in to connect as part of the ODWW Project as well as some pre-existing wastewater customers (the rate order discloses that additional fees may apply for systems LMUD did not install). “We found that not all plumbing companies offer service for grinder pumps,” said Foster. With this rate change, rather than customers calling a plumbing company, LMUD is now in charge of performing all necessary repairs and preventative maintenance required to keep the systems functioning properly. It remains the customer’s responsibility to contact LMUD to initiate a work order for any needed repairs.
While most of the Project was planned to be handled in-house to keep costs lower for customers, portions of the project require a specialized approach. On March 18, 2020 we contracted with winning bidder, Austin Engineering Company, Inc., at $4.589 million to construct a new lift station, force main, and improvements to the S-5 Water Recycling Plant, components that are necessary to accommodate the future flow capacity.
By April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold across the United States. While LMUD continued to be fully operational as an “essential business,” it did require policy changes that slowed down workflow. Supply shortages also led to delays for us and our contractors. But, we weathered the storm, even as the Project’s field supervisor retired, followed by a team lead. We forged ahead. New crew members were hired and trained. Teams moved from a 5-day to 6-day work week to try to keep up with the Project timeline.
Winter Storm Uri
And then the unprecedented snowstorm hit the southeastern United States. From February 13 to 17, 2021 all hands were on deck, working tirelessly throughout the night and into the early morning hours to keep water flowing, pipes from bursting, and lift stations from overflowing. The same crews who handle the installation on the ODWW Project are responsible for routine repairs and maintenance on the distribution systems for LMUD’s water, wastewater, and recycled water systems, which is built into their schedule, but when a tragic event like Winter Storm Uri catches everyone off guard, it takes months to recover.
Where We Are Now
Customer-Install Option Added
Word has continued to spread about the Project, which has created more inquiries from customers asking about their connection options. Phase 2 homeowners have been told it will be at least four to six years before we will be connecting properties in their area and it will be a long wait on the early connection list as well. To accommodate this demand, in March 2021, LMUD management approved the option of performing self-installations of a grinder pump system. With this new option, upon approval, rather than having to wait on the availability of our crew, once the homeowner fills out the required paperwork and pays a fee for an early connection, they are responsible for hiring a licensed plumber and a licensed electrician to install the system per LMUD specifications and run the service line to the street where LMUD crew will complete the final tie-in to the sewer main line. Stephanie Threinen, LMUD’s Public Information Liaison and our customers’ primary contact for the Project, said, “While a self-install requires a significant investment by the customer, it does offer an additional option so customers can complete the work on their own schedule; it still costs much less and requires less space than putting in a new septic system.”
Regular Connections Initiated
The first “Regular Connections” (eligible homeowners who opt-in to have their sewer connection completed by LMUD crew in a sequential order along predetermined routes) for Phase 1 began in June 2021 with homes around hole 1 of the Live Oak Golf Course on Sunfish.
And then came the rain. With an expected long, hot summer ahead of us and already low lake levels, this was a much appreciated event for our water department, delaying any need to further water conservation efforts, however, for our field team, it has led to even more delays. LMUD’s Field Maintenance Crew Lead Zach Trippe said, “We appreciate those customers who are patient with us. This project has so many moving parts on top of everything else we do. We’re still moving forward and we will get to everyone, but just not as quickly as we thought we would.”
Phase 1 (approx. 330 homes) is currently anticipated to take three years to complete, followed by Phase 2 (approx. 920 homes) taking another three to five years. Homeowners along the route predetermined by LMUD management will be contacted to fill out a contract stating their intent to opt-in or opt-out of a sewer connection once we get closer to connecting homes in their area. Early Connections continue to be made available to homeowners, however, considerations for approval include the availability of a sewer main line tie-in and complexity of work required to complete the connection. A “Late Connection” option remains available to homeowners who choose to opt-out of a connection. Like Early Connections, there is a one-time upfront fee associated with this option.
Comprehensive information and updates on the Project can be found in the ODWW Project section of the LMUD website. Questions can be directed to Stephanie Threinen, LMUD’s Public Information Liaison by visiting the LMUD office at 1097 Lohmans Crossing, calling (512) 261-6222 ext. 175, or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org .