$600M needed to fix aging water, sewer systems in Allentown and its suburbs
- It’s estimated to cost $600 million to fix aging water and wastewater infrastructure in 15 municipalities connected to the Lehigh County Authority
- This cost is not included in recent and proposed rate increases
- Officials are holding public meetings in each municipality to answer questions and collect feedback
ALLENTOWN, Pa. – It’s going to cost about $600 million over the next decade to upgrade aging water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, increase capacity and solve other issues in more than a dozen Lehigh County municipalities, including Allentown.
“The system that was built to transport wastewater to [Kline's Island Wastewater Treatment Plant] and the facility that treats the wastewater is aging and faces some challenges related to environmental compliance,” said Liesel M. Gross, CEO of Lehigh County Authority. “And, it’s also reaching some capacity limitations, which will limit the ability for the region to grow in those communities that are growing.
“It's a lifecycle process, where we're needing to renew the system and the aging infrastructure, but also plan for the next generation of new connections to the system.”
The authority, a nonprofit water and wastewater utility, on Wednesday announced the costly estimate, as well as a dedicated website and schedule of public meetings for more than half of the 15 municipalities affected by the plan. The first meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight in South Whitehall Township.
“We need to talk about it and raise the awareness that it's a really critical service in every community and requires that investment.”Liesel M. Gross, CEO of Lehigh County Authority
“It’s not as visible as a road or bridge,” Gross said. “Water and sewer — you don't really think about it a lot. You don't see it. Everything's buried underground.
“We need to talk about it and raise the awareness that it's a really critical service in every community and requires that investment.”
‘The projects that we think need to happen’
The more-than-half-billion-dollar price tag isn’t for any one project, but for many across the authority’s expansive service area, including treatment facilities in municipalities, officials said.
Projects include upgrades to Kline’s Island on Union Street in Allentown and the authority's industrial pretreatment plant in Fogelsville, as well as pipe and pump expansions. In addition, each municipality has its own sewer collection system that needs to be upgraded.
Asked about where the money would come from to pay for the improvements, Gross said the financial plan wasn’t immediately available, but would be shared with residents at the public meetings.
Improvements to individual municipal sewer collection systems are a “pretty significant portion” of the total, she said.
Officials since 2007 have been working on the plan, Gross said, citing federal and state regulations, as well as the difficulty of collaborating with more than a dozen municipalities.
“We worked really hard at creating the collaboration that's needed to to bring forth a set of projects that everyone can understand and agree that it’s the right solution,” she said. “We're still working on that, but I think we're getting to the point where we can go to the public and say these are conceptually the projects that we think need to happen.”
For more than a decade, state or federal environmental officials have had regulatory oversight over the authority due to capacity challenges. Then, in 2019, Kline’s Island exceeded its permitted flow limit of 40 million gallons per day and the authority was placed under a corrective action plan.
When the plant exceeds capacity, untreated wastewater flows into the Little Lehigh River.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has given the authority a March 2025 deadline to submit an Act 537 plan for its service area.
Those plans, required by all municipalities, “provide for the resolution of existing sewage disposal problems, provide for the future sewage disposal needs of new land development, and provide for future sewage disposal needs of the municipality,” according to the DEP’s website.
There has never before been a comprehensive regional sewer plan for Lehigh County – this is the first of its kind.
“We are expecting to roll the plan out, conceptually, to the public now, work on financial analysis, rate projections and finalize the plan in 2024,” Gross said. “Every municipality and every planning commission of every municipality needs to review it, comment on it and approve it by resolution before we can submit it to DEP.”
No money has been earmarked or spent – the plan must first be finalized and submitted to the state DEP for approval.
“We're facilitating the planning process, and we're trying to drive this schedule to meet the regulatory deadline that's been imposed here,” Gross said. “But at the end of the day, each municipality needs to provide their input, needs to be comfortable with what we're doing, and they need to approve it, and then we'll facilitate implementation.”
The estimate comes on the heels of a possible rate hike starting next year.
Under the proposed rates, quarterly water bills could increase by 11.6% for a typical Allentown resident and 3.9% for residents in the suburbs. The proposed rates on Nov. 13 go before the authority’s board of directors for adoption.
Allentown residents could feel more financial strain, with trash and recycling fees in 2024 set to increase $40 under a city budget approved by council last weekend. A proposal by Mayor Matt Tuerk to raise taxes to help fill budget gaps was not approved.
Authority officials are slated to visit each of the more than a dozen municipalities affected by the plan to lay it out for residents, as well as answer questions and take public comment.
While additional meetings are yet to be scheduled, those that are already confirmed include:
- 6 p.m. Nov. 8 in South Whitehall Township
- 6 p.m. Nov. 15 in Hanover Township
- 7 p.m. Nov. 16 with the Coplay-Whitehall Sewer Authority
- 6 p.m. Nov. 20 in Emmaus
- 7 p.m. Nov. 21 in Salisbury Township
- 6 p.m. Nov. 27 in Lower Macungie Township
- 7 p.m. Nov. 29 in Alburtis
- 7 p.m. Dec. 7 in Upper Macungie Township
For more information, go to lehighcountyauthority.org.