Here’s something fun to think about: In the first eight months of this year, more than 21 million gallons of raw sewage has been discharged into Mobile and Baldwin county waterways.
Yes, that’s 21 million gallons — roughly 32 Olympic-sized pools worth of poopy water dumped into bayous, creeks and the bay. Those spillage numbers come from Mobile Baykeeper, the local group that advocates for crazy things like clean water and air in our community. Lately they’ve been focusing a good bit on getting the word out about these massive sewage spills, and if 21 million gallons won’t get your attention, nothing will.
Unfortunately for the humans who like to spend time on the water locally — as well as the aquatic creatures who also make use of local waterways — spills and overflows have become a way of life around here. We don’t really even blink these days when we hear of some meager 100,000-gallon sewage spill. One million gallons or more is what it takes to turn my head.
Frankly, when I hear about a spill that’s “only” 30,000 or 40,000 gallons, I’m just thankful it’s not more. It just sounds like a bad toilet overflow or something now.
But if you’re remotely interested in boating, fishing, oystering, swimming, wading or just being able to stand next to water that doesn’t smell like a music festival port-a-potty, the constant issues we’re having with sewage spills are unacceptable.
Following the deluge last week from Hurricane Harvey, roughly 1 million gallons of sewage spilled into local waterways. On Aug. 30 alone there were 30 separate sewage overflows in Mobile County. Baldwin had five reported ongoing spills. So that means when the clouds finally parted and everyone headed out onto the water for Labor Day weekend, plenty of freshly minted E. coli buddies were there waiting.
Just a few weeks ago, Fly Creek in Fairhope was the recipient of several hundred thousand gallons of untreated sewage after a fuse blew at a lift station. The backup system and a warning horn were also not functional and toilet water flowed unfettered into the creek until Monday morning, when people living nearby complained to city officials about the stench. I love the smell of raw sewage in the morning.
Meanwhile that weekend the people kayaking in Fly Creek or out in the bay were splashing in … well, you know what. They just didn’t get the news until Monday.
Looking back through Lagniappe’s coverage of this issue, there was a story right at the end of last year where officials discussed the above-average numbers of sewage overflows and spills that finished out 2016. With 21 million dumped so far in 2017, it sounds like last year was just a warmup.
When you read through story after story about these fecal events, the excuses are almost always the same — heavy rainfall. It’s sad we accept heavy rainfall as an excuse for having failing sewage systems. Newsflash: It rains a lot here. In fact, it rains a lot all over the Southeast. This shouldn’t catch everyone off guard. Our sewage systems should be built and maintained to handle our frequent gully washers.
And, of course, that’s where the real issues lie. Maintenance and upkeep of our sewer systems in Mobile and Baldwin counties clearly falls far short of what it should be. We constantly hear Mobile Area Water and Sewer Systems, as well as the myriad sewer systems in Baldwin County, address these big spills by complaining about infrastructure and their inability to properly maintain or repair broken pipes or worn-out lift stations, etc. But if these groups are actually attempting to improve the situation, it doesn’t seem to be working.
In Baldwin County, rapid population growth might offer some excuses to the sewer bosses across the E. coli-filled bay, but Mobile really can’t place blame there. The city has had the same population for many years now. Is there a plan in place to stop this river of poop, or are we just going to keep buying the “it rained really hard” excuse?
I grew up on the water and was fortunate enough to be able to fish, crab and flounder in the Mississippi Sound as much as I wished. At that time, though, my neighborhood had a great big septic tank. Every Thursday it dumped gallons and gallons of treated sewage into a bayou I still only know as Sh** Creek.
While the hardhead catfish were excited by the routine discharge, the odor was disgusting and there was a noticeable decline in water quality around where the bayou met the sound. Needless to say, we didn’t fish anywhere near the mouth of the bayou.
And that was treated sewage.
We’re talking about 21 million gallons of raw sewage over the past eight months being dumped into our waterways. As justifiable as it is to get worked up about the Press-Register dumping unwanted ad circulars into local streets, where they find their way into waterways, it does seem we’ve mastered the collective shrug when we have millions of gallons of sewage flowing into our streets and waterways and no one is held accountable.
It’s time for the sewage companies to stop offering the same tired excuses and get busy fixing the problems. Because guess what? It’s going to rain hard here again very soon. Probably this week. And a spokesperson saying it just rained too darn hard isn’t an acceptable excuse. Neither is a fuse blowing and nobody noticing for days.
We spend tremendous amounts of time as a community worrying about the environmental impact of any new development, but are standing in a river of sewage flowing into the bay while we do so.
Local leaders pay a lot of lip service to this area’s unique environment and close relationship with water, but there really should be a sense of outrage over 21 million gallons of sewage spilling in our communities so far this year. The heads of the sewage companies involved and the cities and counties impacted need to have a serious come-to-Jesus.
We can’t go into 2018 knowing another 30 million gallons of sewage is going to end up in local waterways just because it rained.