An extremely high number of sanitary sewer overflows were reported in Mobile and Baldwin counties during the last week of December. While historically significant rainfall can be blamed for most of the issues, a local environmental watchdog organization said more has to be done to prevent future problems in one of the country’s rainiest areas.

Between the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System and several systems in Baldwin County, the area suffered more than 120 instances of untreated sewage overflowing into local waterways. The overflows sparked a number of recreation and consumption warnings from local and state health agencies.

Mobile Baykeeper reported 120 different sanitary sewer overflows along the MAWSS infrastructure from Dec. 22 to Dec. 30. One of the largest spills during that time saw 117,000 gallons flow into Halls Mill Creek. On Dec. 24, more than 334,000 gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Three Mile Creek in two different locations.

MAWSS spokeswoman Barbara Shaw blamed all of the 110 reported overflows during that week on heavy rainfall. According to a report covering the period Dec. 21-25, MAWSS service areas saw between 6 inches and nearly 8 inches of rain. The largest 24-hour volume during that time was the 5.5 inches that fell on Trimmier Park.  

“A lot depends on the intensity and amount of rainfall,” Shaw said.

When it rains like it did in late December, Shaw said, cracks caused by roots in lateral lines can cause water to rush in and overload lift stations, causing overflows.

“When you get a lot of rain and you get it all at once, the water looks for somewhere to go,” Shaw said. “It becomes very possible to have problems.”

A somewhat inexpensive solution to the problem would be to place additional storage tanks close to stations where problems persist. MAWSS has done that in three locations, Shaw said. Currently the water system has two additional 8-million-gallon tanks at Three Mile Creek and Eslava Creek and a 10-million-gallon tank at the Williams Wastewater Treatment plant.

“We are looking at additional storage ideas,” Shaw said.

Many of the areas of concern are in older parts of town, where the sewer system and infrastructure have aged. In these areas a solution to the problem includes fixing older pipes that may have become weakened and cracked. In the last two years, Shaw said, MAWSS has been lining old pipes, which extends the life of a pipe by 50 years, rather than replacing them.

Another solution is to add more lift stations. For example, Shaw said, MAWSS studies have detected a problem at Pecan and Bizzel streets. MAWSS plans to correct the problem by building an additional lift station there and is almost done with the permitting process.

Shaw said additional capital improvements require money, and MAWSS is fully funded by its customers and receives no tax dollars.

Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said it’s not enough to just blame heavy rain events and move on with additional storage facilities. She said heavy rain events happen often. Instead, there needs to be an investment in infrastructure in order to fix the problem.

“It’s an unacceptable excuse to say it was a 10-year flood event,” Callaway said. “You can’t call it a 10-year event if it happens twice a year. It doesn’t usually rain like that in December here, but it does rain like that.”

All spills are significant, Callaway said, but large ones have an impact on recreation and other use of area waterways. The Mobile County Health Department sent out a number of warnings related to the spills in county waterways, including several in Bayou La Batre and one in Prichard.

David Leget, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Health in Baldwin County, said a standard warning in these situations would be to caution anyone using those waterways for recreation to ensure they thoroughly cook fish caught there. Leget said he’s not aware of any illnesses related to recent overflows in Baldwin County.

Mobile’s neighbor to the east did not avoid problems related to heavy rainfall. Baldwin County saw several reports of sanitary sewer overflows from Bay Minette to Lillian. There were a number of overflows in Fairhope, at least one of which Mayor Tim Kant blamed on residents leaving their lines open.

“There were a couple of private properties where sewer cleanout caps were open,” Kant said. “For whatever reason, people clean out their own sewer lines and don’t put the caps back on.”

According to a statement from the Baldwin County Health Department, one of the Fairhope spills on Dec. 23 resulted in 12,000 gallons of sewage spilling into Big Mouth Gully, which empties into Mobile Bay. Another spill emptied 18,000 gallons into Tatumville Gully, which also discharges into the bay.

Those open caps allowed water to overflow a lift station at Valley and State streets. There were two additional overflows on Johnson Street and at a lift station at South Mobile Street and Fels Avenue.