There is good news and there is bad news, Mayor Karin Wilson said, from the recent spate of negative publicity about poor water quality at Fairhope public beaches. On the plus side, it’s a chance to highlight the progress and updates to a five-year plan she released for utilities in 2017, but she may also use negative publicity to leverage pressure for more funding just as she submits her draft 2020 budget to the City Council.
Wilson joined Public Works Director Richard Johnson, Special Projects Manager Lynn Maser and Director of Economic and Community Development Jessica Walker in the mayor’s office last week, where they spoke about the strides the city has made with wastewater infrastructure, the shortcomings the system currently has and problems that will likely never be solved.
“I think the perfect storm happened the last few weeks,” Wilson said, recalling sewer spills reported as a result of heavy rainfall from Hurricane Barry and equipment malfunctions; a national report that called out Fairhope’s beaches as the dirtiest in Alabama; and a viral 13-second video shot in the dark calm of 12:40 a.m. purporting to show what the filmmaker said was “doo-doo” floating on the surface of the bay.
Last week, phones for city officials were constantly ringing with complaints about the episodes.
“All of these things happened and I try to look for the silver lining,” Wilson said. “And what I do think has happened is the council is very motivated to really push this forward in a big way, when we’ve been this way from Day 1.”
Wilson was talking about her nearly three-year push for utilities upgrades, more feasible now with a recently balanced budget achieved by stemming transfers out of the utilities fund to the general fund, cutting costs, adding revenue from new customers and restructuring some fees. As far as the sewer is concerned, there are millions of dollars worth of upgrades planned and tentatively funded, with more on the horizon.
Among those are an ongoing project to line pipes and seal manhole covers to prevent stormwater infiltration, new “side-stream” storage facilities to control flow during peak hours and two projects to replace 10-inch transmission lines leading to the city’s wastewater treatment with 18-inch lines. Johnson said with the resulting increase in transmission capacity, branch lines feeding the system will be less likely to back up during heavy rains.
“With the upgrades to [transmission lines], the upgrades to lift stations, the addition of the side stream storage and then $10 million to rehabilitate, we’re going to really close in on having a system that is very modernized,” Johnson said. “That’s a big sea change for us.”
Then there was the bad news.
“The city of Fairhope is completely committed to doing our role and top notch, but it’s not going to make a significant difference in the quality of the bay,” Wilson said, displaying a map of the Mobile Bay watershed, which covers most of the state and small parts of Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi.
She admitted that even though it shares a small part of the responsibility for improving water quality, Fairhope is just a “dot” in Mobile Bay’s large, dynamic watershed. Fairhope’s water quality, she said, can be equally affected by sewer spills upstream, not to mention agricultural runoff, construction sediments and direct and indirect pollution from points hundreds of miles northward.
It’s a point agreed upon by Councilman Robert Brown, although he’s interested in seeing more research before he can reach a conclusion. In public meetings since the bad publicity, Brown has perhaps been the most vocal on the council about his frustration with the problem but he also argues the council has been doing its part.
“The city is not doing enough, but we’re not being negligent to the situation,” he said. “It’s not the council’s job to find problems within system … to date the council has voted to fund every sewer or infrastructure issue brought to us. It’s not a funding issue — the city has the money — but we’re not getting enough done fast enough.”
Johnson said last week the design phase of any sewer project is often the most time-consuming. In an attempt to speed up the process and curb expenses, Wilson requested funds for two full-time engineers for the utilities department in previous budget proposals. In fact, the mayor pointed out, as the city has experienced “33 percent growth” over the last budget cycle, she has made other key personnel requests the council has not granted.
“I don’t feel that growing the government is the correct answer,” Brown said. “We can subcontract it and correct the problems.”
Johnson said the council will consider more expensive projects over the coming months. The bid for the Fairwood Boulevard pipe replacement was opened last week at $2.1 million. A similar project on Church Street, which will include improvements to electrical lines, drainage and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, is expected to approach $4 million when it is bid in the next few months.
“I think we’ve won some hearts and minds with our council that they realize that we’re committed, we’re serious, we’re knowledgeable, we have priorities and we want their input and their involvement,” Johnson said. “We’re going to kind of put that to a test.”
Brown said he doesn’t foresee the council second-guessing upcoming sewer expenditures including the replacement of transmission lines and the construction of a side-stream storage facility off Twin Beech Road. But other long-term improvement proposals, such as adding “pre-treatment” facilities in several neighborhoods around town, require more thought.
“People are acting like the city is pumping sewage into the bay and it’s not,” he said. “I’m not saying everything is good, but it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).