On Saturday, May 11, somewhere in Robertsdale, a delay in an electrical switch failed to activate a bypass pump in the city’s sewer system. According to reports maintained by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), it resulted in the release of less than 999 gallons of untreated wastewater into Rock Creek, a tributary of Perdido Bay.
The same day in Daphne, an obstruction in a manhole caused the release of less than 9,999 gallons of untreated wastewater into Mobile Bay.
The following Tuesday, a vehicle struck a valve in the Fish River area, resulting in the release of less than 999 gallons of wastewater that was absorbed in the ground. Back in Daphne, a high-level float failed, releasing 240 gallons of untreated wastewater that was absorbed into the ground somewhere around 2005 Old County Road.
All sewer utilities in the state must submit sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) reports to ADEM within 24 hours of becoming aware of any overflow, spill, release or diversion of wastewater from a sanitary sewer system that either reaches surface water or “may imminently and substantially endanger human health based on potential for public exposure.”
According to those reports, it’s been a relatively uneventful year-to-date in Baldwin County, with 39 SSOs reported from as far north as Bay Minette to as far south as Orange Beach. Together they document a maximum of 170,699 gallons of untreated wastewater escaping local sewer systems, about 10 percent of which affected area waterways.
Comparatively, 1.24 million gallons were reported in 2018 SSO reports, with slightly more than 84 percent affecting local waterways. In 2017 SSO reports, county utilities reported 3.41 million gallons released, with 74 percent entering local waterways. The most affected local waterways were Tatumville Gulley and Fly Creek in Fairhope, Rock Creek in Robertsdale and the upper Blackwater River watershed in north Baldwin County.
The data above was also compiled by Mobile Baykeeper, which uses it to populate an interactive map on its website allowing anyone to explore the amount, locations and severity of SSO events in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
“In this last 12-month period we saw a pretty dramatic decrease,” Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said. “In 2017 we watched those numbers [rise] and it correlated to water quality. In 2018 we did better, but it was not a full improvement and we said ‘this isn’t acceptable and utilities must invest in updates to manage and curb sewer spills.’”
Baykeeper’s analysis showed 75 percent of SSOs were caused by rainfall infiltration into sewer systems, 14 percent were caused by failures in the collection or treatment process and the remainder were caused by blockages (6 percent), lightning or power loss (2 percent) and broken or damaged lines (2 percent).
“Most utilities have the capacity at their wastewater treatment plants, but not in the lines getting to the plants,” Callaway explained. “There are challenges in getting some investment at lift stations making sure they work well — and the lines — but if there are breaches and breakages, you’re getting rainwater in the system and putting too much pressure on it.”
Lift stations are essentially pump houses that move wastewater in areas where it cannot rely upon gravity for transport to a treatment plant. They are fed by transmission lines, which are increasingly more vulnerable to age and in areas where there has been a tremendous amount of growth, increasingly more vulnerable to human intrusion.
“That’s the main problem,” Baykeeper Program Director Cade Kistler agreed. “There are old lines with breaks in them and rainwater is able to get in at that point to cause overflows. There are also issues on the private side, where contractors will drill through pipes or homeowners will remove cleanout caps removed to drain their yards.”
According to ADEM and Baykeeper data, the Baldwin utilities reporting the most SSOs in 2018 — in descending order — were Fairhope Utilities, the city of Robertsdale, North Baldwin Utilities, Foley Utilities, South Alabama Sewer Service and Baldwin County Sewer Service.
In Fairhope, where 294,000 gallons were reported spilled during a single rain event last September — Tropical Storm Gordon — staff are getting creative about future solutions. There, city officials spent more than $10 million on a wastewater improvement project that was completed in 2014, but its primary purpose was to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorous from the plant’s effluent in an attempt to prevent conditions favorable for algae blooms in the bay. More recently, it has been investing in its collection system, awarding a $400,000 contract for pipe repair and seeking a pending $10 million Restore Act grant for more transmission upgrades.
But rather than immediately increase the capacity of its wastewater treatment plant, which is permitted to treat 4 million gallons per day and currently experiences an average daily flow of around 2.3 million gallons, Operations Director Richard Peterson is drawing up plans to construct as many as seven 150,000- to-200,000-gallon “side stream” storage tanks on city-owned property throughout the system, along with facilities that “pre-treat” sewage before it’s sent to the plant.
The first will be built on property donated by the Retirement Systems of Alabama adjacent to the Colony at the Grand. Peterson said it’ll relieve pressure on an antiquated lift station on Twin Beech Road that is frequently the subject of odor complaints, and will provide some redundancy for the Grand Hotel, which is considered a sensitive economic driver for the city.
“In 10 years at this growth rate we will be at capacity, or maybe even a little bit sooner than that,” he said. “So five years from now, we should have a definite plan as to what we’re going to be doing with the potential to upgrade the plant to have a little bit more capacity, although the [space] at the plant is limited.”
Early plans indicate side-stream storage tanks and pretreatment facilities may also be built in the neighborhoods of The Woodlands, Quail Creek, Autumn Park, Nature Park, at the public-works facility and near the airport south of town. The airport facility, Peterson suggested, could be a “decentralized” system, which would collect wastewater from septic systems from future developments before treating it and injecting it back into the ground.
“I think it’s going to take a combination of all of these things to come up with the right mix that’s economically feasible.”
Two years ago, Peterson proposed the city borrow $22 million for all utility upgrades, but the City Council has taken a project-by-project approach. System Supervisor Jay Whitman weighed in.
“The treatment of sewage is difficult and unrewarding to say the least,” he said. “And, you know, the water is easy to treat. But the cost of all of it. I hate to use the term skyrocket — this is going to go up significantly with the cost of what it takes to treat sewer.”
Nothing is cheap or easy, they suggested, providing an example of a recent lift station replacement on Fels Avenue that was bid at around $300,000, but ultimately cost $571,000 to construct. Whitman said costs will continue to be difficult to control, as it is basically a seller’s market for engineering and construction services in Baldwin County at the moment. Engineering alone for the Fels Avenue project took over a year, Whitman said, some of which was delayed by the city’s system of checks and balances.
“The City Council meets every two weeks, and we come in and we say, ‘We’re looking at doing this’ and they say, ‘OK, move forward.’ And then we move forward, and we get the [project scope] back and they say, ‘OK, we can select this engineer now,’ and four weeks have gone by. And now the engineer comes back and says, ‘Hey, I think it’s going to be X amount of dollars to engineer’ and the council may table it for two weeks, so now we’ve done no work and eight to 10, maybe 16 weeks go by.”
Fairhope Utilities currently charges a base fee of $13.74 for a minimum of 2,000 gallons per household in the city limits and $4.07 for each additional 1,000 gallons, or a fixed rate of $18.32. The connection fee for new houses is $600, an amount Peterson said is “basically giving it away.” The Fairhope City Council rejected a recent proposal to raise rates, but Peterson said he hopes to add some cost cutting measures in next year’s budget, including the addition of staff engineers to help with expediency.
In unincorporated areas of the county, private sewer collection and treatment is provided by Baldwin County Sewer Service (BCSS). Although data indicates it has experienced fewer SSOs than some of its counterparts, Marketing Director Jenny Williams indicated it responds in a similar fashion, and is also making steps toward preventative measures.
“Many of the SSOs in 2019 so far have been due to random occurrences associated with construction operations, such as a light pole settling and breaking a main line, lines cut because of other utility or contractor projects,” Williams wrote in an email. “There has been an increase in construction and related digging in our service territory over the past three years, with a lot of new developments and highway widenings like on [U.S] Highway 31 where utilities have to move their main lines and taps. Preventive maintenance projects to guard against future SSOs include relining manholes and main lines, sealing manholes, actively looking for open cleanouts and actively engaging our customers to help protect against prohibited items like grease, rags, wipes, etc. from being put down the drain, which causes obstructions in main lines and lift stations that can lead to SSOs.”
Both Fairhope Utilities and BCSS have joined a new campaign organized by the Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF) called Utilities United. According to ACF Executive Director Mark Berte, the goal is to help prevent SSOs by educating the public on its role every time a toilet is flushed or yard is drained.
“Decades ago we were in a much different position than today and that’s partly why Utilities United came together now. We’re realizing that working together is better than trying to work against each other,” he said. “We’ve met five time thus far … and the big topic we’re focusing on is general information, and starting this month we wanted to talk about grease and grease recycling.”
ACF’s Utilities United campaign website provides a profile of each member system and presentations about residential customer’s roles.
“Each utility does a lot behind the scenes — monitoring and inspecting of pipelines and general maintenance — but utilities face a fairly large challenge, but one the public can help with. We get a ton of rain here and what you do on your lawns makes a difference. Cleaning out your end caps on an annual basis but also supporting infrastructure improvements utilities need to make … to keep in line with best practices.”
BCSS charges flat residential rates and flat standard commercial rates for sewer treatment, according to Williams. The monthly treatment fee is $54.50 for a single-family home and $109 for a standard commercial building, such as an office or standard retail store.
“Monthly treatment fees for properties with multi-family developments, such as RV parks and apartment complexes, or larger commercial applications have different rates that are determined by their average or predicted water usage,” she wrote. “These rates are a function of the cost of providing service, and they are examined each year.”
Williams explained that because BCSS is a private service, it is not eligible for grants. BCSS charges a regular tap fee is $3,500 for a single-family home and $4,200 for a standard commercial business.
“Tap fees for properties with multi-family developments, such as RV parks and apartment complexes, or larger commercial applications, like strip centers, have different rates that are determined by their average or predicted water usage. BCSS also pumps septic tanks throughout the county for $275,” Williams wrote.
Since its beginning in 1998, BCSS has grown to provide sewer service to approximately 19,000 equivalent residential units (ERUs), and has wastewater treatment plants in Malbis, Gulf Shores, Lillian, Steelwood and Summerdale. Williams said BCSS has already expanded some of those plants and is currently in the process of building more capacity.
BCSS uses ERUs instead of “customers,” since a billed account holder or “customer” could encompass several units or buildings, such as an RV park, condominium complex or large commercial development.
“ERUs are used to manage capacity much like KWH is used by electrical utilities or BTU is used by gas utilities,” Williams wrote.
When it comes to residential development and long-term planning, Williams wrote: “BCSS is notified of potential new development during the initial planning stage by the developer or engineer since most planning commissions require letters of availability from the utilities. BCSS keeps records of availability letters issued with any corresponding plans or documents and keeps tabs on the possible developments.
“We have a stringent process when handling new developments on our system, and we work closely with engineers, architects, developers and others during this process to ensure compliance with our standard specifications during the approval process. On a monthly basis, BCSS tracks active customers and commitments (new and previous) and updates capacity planning.”
At Daphne Utilities, which is currently the defendant in a lawsuit over sewage spills in 2017 brought by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and with Mobile Baykeeper as an intervenor, General Manager Danny Lyndall noted: “We have adopted new tools and technologies and are implementing additional types of monitoring throughout our system to try to give us an early warning prior to any system issues. Our team also regularly receives updated training on system maintenance, system monitoring, SSO response, cleanup and follow-up. Finally, we invest millions of dollars a year in system maintenance, rehabilitation and upgrades.”
From a high of 17 reported SSOs with an equivalent release of 808,545 gallons on untreated wastewater in 2017, Daphne Utilities reduced that amount to 37,482 gallons last year and 13,227 gallons so far this year.
Daphne Utilities currently charges a sewer capacity fee of $2,800 per connection, and is in the process of considering a rate increase from its $22 minimum fee for the first 1,000 gallons in the city limits and $27.59 outside city limits. Lyndall assured there has been ample investment in upgrades to the system there, before and after the lawsuit.
“Keep in mind that every single day of the year, Daphne Utilities collects, transports and treats between 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 gallons of wastewater,” Lyndall wrote. “Even though the SSO volumes above are a very small percentage of the total amount of waste we handle, we take every single one of them seriously. We conduct an ‘after-action’ meeting with a root-cause analysis after every SSO to try to learn what we can do better in the future and prevent any similar occurrence.”
See this article on lagniappemobile.com for a spreadsheet of SSOs reported in Baldwin County from 2016 to the present.
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