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Memphis Overhauls Aging Sewer System to Support Economic Growth

Memphis, TN, USA
Black & Veatch

Government Champion

Department of Public Works

Project Status

In Progress/Under Construction since 2013

At a Glance

The city of Memphis, TN was ordered to modernize its aging sewer system after it leaked sewage into waterways and homes. Through its 10-year Sewer Assessment and Rehabilitation Program, the city is building a modern sewer network that supports Memphis’ development and economic growth.

Problem Addressed

Memphis, TN has 3,200 miles of sewer system just below its many streets and homes, a distance equivalent to that between the cities of Seattle and Miami. In a given year, the system treats about 60M gallons of wastewater to support the city's growing population of over 650,000.

Construction of the system began in the 1870s, meaning some pipes are over a century old. Over time, the aging infrastructure started to deteriorate and began to leak untreated sewage into yards, streets, homes, and streams. Because of the scale of the sewer system, it was difficult for Public Works staff to proactively repair the infrastructure in a way that was cost effective and went beyond fixing individual leaks or cracks. In 2012, the EPA, along with Tennessee’s state agencies, stepped in and demanded the complete rehabilitation and updating of the system.

Because the environmental risk posed by the continued sewage overflows was significant, the project was laden with timeline and performance benchmarks and metrics Memphis had to meet. The City also had to adopt an ongoing plan to assess and maintain the system’s health, with measures in place to respond to issues and emergencies.

Largely funded through rate revenues with additional funding made available through bonds and loans, the project was titled the Sewer Assessment and Rehabilitation Program. Over the course of 10 years and at a cost of $350 million, Memphis planned to completely modernize its entire sewer system to support its growing economy and population. The city defined three overarching definitions of program success: technical success, affordability, and local/minority or women-owned business participation that creates local jobs. Because of the enormity of the project, and the timeline and performance benchmarks demanded, Memphis needed an experienced partner to manage the program in line with its goals, and achieve regulatory compliance.

Memphis, TN used/is using Black & Veatch to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

Because of its past experience and large footprint as a company, Black & Veatch was chosen to provide Memphis with services throughout the project’s duration, including comprehensive program management services, public relations and community outreach, financial management, and regulatory reporting. After starting work in 2013, the project is anticipated to be completed in 2023.

The city has used the project as an opportunity to invest in the community and enhance equity among contractors who may often get overlooked. In past projects, the city had typically set minority participation goals of 10%. Despite a small number of minority-owned firms capable of working with a scope of work so large, Black & Veatch entrusted over one-third of the sewer program work to minority- and women-owned businesses. These local contractors will bring value to the community by continuing much of the assessment and maintenance work to keep the sewer system healthy long into the future. The project’s completion will create a better way of life for Memphis residents through the elimination of sewage overflows, but also by establishing a sewer network resilient enough to support Memphis’ development and economic growth.

Before launching into the program, Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht admits, “we were struggling” to manage the wastewater system in a holistic way, using a Band-aid approach to fix issues with a system that had exceeded its life expectancy. Knecht sees the decree put forward by the EPA and Tennessee state regulators as an opportunity, “None of this would have happened if we hadn’t embarked on this consent decree program so we could be more strategic, more creative, more cost-efficient and cost-effective,” he added.

Under the new program, methods of identifying repair priorities have varied from using smoke to pinpoint cracked conduits to digitally mapping the entire system so that inspection details can be tagged to physical assets and viewed at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a good story. We’re cleaning the system, we’re assessing everything, and we’re starting to get a lot of big return on investments. Now comes the challenging part – trying to just keep driving home the last little bit that we can to keep getting those (overflow) numbers down.”- Scott Morgan, City of Memphis Senior Environmental Administrator

Because of the outsized cost of the project, keeping the project on track and on budget was crucial. To aid in that effort, a strong safety culture was cultivated that is consistent across sub-contractors and the variety of work environments the program demands. To ensure worker safety throughout the program’s 10-year duration, dozens of local supervisors and contractors received free training about such things as regulatory requirements, hazard mitigation, fall protection, and excavation and forklift safety.


  1. Sewage overflows decreased by nearly 66%, lessening the health and environmental impacts of sewage leakage
  2. Local minority and women-owned businesses have been selected to perform more than 1/3 of the project’s work, with more than 30 new careers created by the program
  3. The entire sewer system was digitally mapped to make assessing and maintaining the system’s health easier in the future
  4. Progress on the project has received a positive reception from regulatory agencies, including the EPA
  5. Contractors and supervisors were given free training on safety topics to ensure minimal injuries while working on the project, resulting in over 900,000 work hours with no time lost

Who Should Consider?

Towns or cities hampered in their economic development by foundational infrastructure systems whose scope make piecemeal repairs cost-prohibitive.

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