The Baldwin County Commission hosted an inaugural forum for the public to interact with sewer utilities last week, but if the turnout was any indication, most people flushed the opportunity down the toilet.
Commission President Charles Gruber said “there was a lot of interest” in the issue of water quality and sewage spills during last year’s election season, “so I asked what we could do about it.”
“I worked with some residents and others in the county to engage the sewer providers, and every provider in the county indicated they would attend,” Gruber said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to sit down and tell their stories.”
As it turns out, those stories are very similar, but fewer than a dozen residents showed up to hear them. A video of the Q&A portion of the meeting remains on the Commission’s Facebook page, but attendees also had the opportunity to meet with providers one-on-one.
Despite Baldwin County’s state-leading growth, local sewer providers claim to have maintained or increased the capacity of their wastewater treatment plants, while also improving transmission infrastructure and keeping rates relatively low. Admitting spills do occur and sometimes frequently, providers suggested they are often caused by forces beyond their control: grease and wet-wipe blockages, damage to pipes by tree roots or the careless work of other utilities, stormwater intrusion and aging infrastructure.
Further, they indicated new technology and environmental reporting requirements ensure they react quickly to any emergencies and report any public health concerns immediately and with transparency.
Robert Monk, a member of the South Baldwin County chapter of the Common Sense Campaign, said his group approached the Commission late last year about starting a dialogue with sewer providers.
“Our request was to provide some leadership,” he told Lagniappe before the meeting. “We’re spilling sewage in Mobile Bay … let’s get people in a room and share information.”
“There is a requirement by [the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM)] that every sewer utility has a growth plan … they forecast needs and have a plan to meet those needs. But I’m concerned they almost never follow up. These utilities have a lot in common, but they never talk to each other. The county has no authority whatsoever over sewer utilities and the No. 1 cause [of sewage spills] is stormwater runoff. Stuff like that makes no sense to me.”
Sewer providers in Baldwin County fall under the category of municipal, quasi-public or, in the case of Baldwin County Sewer Service, private.
Richard Peterson, director of utilities for the city of Fairhope, said its single wastewater treatment plant has a capacity of 4 million gallons per day and currently operates with an average daily flow of 2.4 million gallons.
“There’s about a 10-year window where we need to evaluate in the next five years what our options are,” he said about increased capacity. “We recently completed a capacity study and identified capacity constraints, as a result, two projects are being engineered today.”
Those projects include replacement of mainlines along the Church Street corridor, Bayou Drive and Fairhope Avenue which provides transmissions from south and eastern edges of the system. Some of those pipes date to the 1940s, Peterson said.
Fairhope serves roughly 12,500 customers with 80 lift stations, 100 miles of gravity main and almost 60 miles of force main, “every [mile] providing a key component to the transmission of wastewater,” Peterson said.
Up the road in Daphne, Daphne Utilities General Manager Danny Lyndall said they maintain 210 miles of pipe and 81 pump stations to transmit 3 million gallons per day to its wastewater treatment plant, which has a capacity of 4.17 million gallons.
Lyndall did not acknowledge a lawsuit the utility is currently defending over an alleged 700,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled since 2015, but did note “we are aggressively working to operate and maintain and improve our system,” including spending $1.5 million on rehabilitation projects annually, as well as the addition of several new lift stations and a project to clean and videotape the entire system.
Tony Schachle, chief engineer for Riviera Utilities’ Water & Wastewater Department, explained how growth in the city of Foley has pushed his company to expand.
“We have roughly 150 miles of main and 44 lift stations,” he said. “We’re upgrading our wastewater treatment plant from 2 million gallons per day to 3.5 million, a $20 million upgrade that we anticipate will be completed in February 2020 … It’s mostly residential growth — a lot of new RV parks — and we provide water and sewer to OWA.”
Riviera Utilities averages 1.6 million gallons per day currently, but, “it’s just a matter of time before we meet that capacity and there’s more coming every day,” Schachle said.
James Morris, facilities manager at Gulf Shores Utilities, said because of water quality standards along the coast, their permit is more restrictive than most.
“To say we’re interested in a clean coast is an understatement,” he said.
Gulf Shores has just shy of 15,000 customers, but with condos and resorts the system comprises 280 miles of sewer mains and 54 pump stations. The utility has the capacity to treat 4 million gallons per day, but maintains storage for as much as 11 million gallons on a short-term basis.
“Our goal to stay about seven to 10 years ahead of the growth curve, and that presents quite a few challenges for us,” he said. “Although we have one of the most restrictive permits in Baldwin, we run 79.5 percent below discharge standards.”
Environmental organizations including ADEM, the Alabama Coastal Foundation, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Mobile Baykeeper also attended.
Mobile Baykeeper Program Director Cade Kistler expressed concern that sewer utilities do not coordinate with municipal planning and zoning departments and suggested the state could benefit from a rule requiring capacity assurance.
“Without actual ordinances or legislation it’s a bit inane … not all of them are willing to admit their vulnerabilities,” he said.
Sewage-spill notifications and stormwater regulations are among Baykeeper’s ongoing high-profile campaigns, so Kistler said he was somewhat disappointed with the turnout.
“I thought there wasn’t enough of the public there because it ended up being a bit of an echo chamber. The idea was great but maybe it was a little unproductive,” he said.
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