By John Mullen

Dealing with wastewater may not be the sexiest role of local government, but it is considered one of the most vital, officials say. 

“Wastewater, in any city, is the behind-the-scenes, least appreciated, less mentioned entity of any department,” Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes said. “But it’s the most important because everybody has to have water. And everybody has to have a place to discharge water.” 

There are several systems in Baldwin County operating to handle, treat and release treated water back into the environment. Most are run by local cities or utilities and one private company handles that chore for some smaller cities and rural areas. 

Among those are Baldwin County Sewer Service, which serves 17,000 households with four treatment facilities. The service area ranges from just south of Bay Minette and along the Eastern Shore all the way to the tip of the Fort Morgan Peninsula. Along the southern part of the county, it serves customers from Foley to Lillian and into Perdido Beach. 

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Robertsdale’s city system serves 2,785 customers inside and outside the city limits. Riviera Utilities’ plant has 5,822 customers in the Foley area. 

Orange Beach, with its huge inventory of towering condominiums, has the most customers of any system in the southern end of the county with 18,372. Gulf Shores Utilities serves more than 7,200 customers. 

As a housing boom continues in the county, these entities will be faced with handling even more wastewater from more and more residences.

Orange Beach now has two new condos under construction, three others have the city’s blessing and single-family building permits in 2017 have already surpassed the total of 80 issued in 2016.

The added growth isn’t helping traffic capacities during the busy summer, but capacity at the wastewater plant is not going to be a problem for the resort town.

“It’s designed and permitted at 10 million gallons a day, but everything is set up to take it up to 15,” Utilities Director Jeff Hartley said. “It’s set up for 15 if the demand was ever to be there.”

On its busiest days in July, Hartley said, the top number is 4 million gallons a day through his system. There’s a running joke among city employees about the Fourth of July flow.

“On July 4, when the fireworks are over, everybody goes in to use the bathroom, take a shower or whatever right after the fireworks,” Grimes said.

The Robertsdale plant is permitted to treat 950,000 million gallons per day, but the city engineer says there is room for expansion if more capacity is needed.

“We don’t currently have any plans to increase the capacity at our [wastewater treatment plant],” Smith said. Robertsdale’s plant was built in 1979 and expanded in 2010.

Baldwin County Sewer System operates four wastewater treatment plants in the county in Malbis, Lillian, Fort Morgan and Steelwood. There are plans for a new plant in the Summerdale area. The Malbis and Lillian plants are permitted for 1.25 million gallons a day, Gulf Shores for 1.2 million and Steelwood for 25,000.

“We are continuously planning for growth and implementing upgrades with main sewer lines, lift stations and wastewater treatment plants as needed,” Jenny Williams of Baldwin County Sewer Service said. “We are currently adding capacity and updating the Lillian plant, and we are planning a new plant in rural Summerdale.”

Riviera’s plant can handle 2 million gallons per day and has plans to expand the capacity to 3.5 million.

The Gulf Shores plant, which was built in the ‘70s and received modifications and additions from 1998 through 2016, is permitted to treat 4 million gallons a day. As in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores’ highest volume days are during July, when the plant treats as much as 3.4 million gallons a day.

All of the utilities deal with spills and line breaks, officials said. The biggest cause in most cases is the heavy rain in Baldwin County’s subtropical climate.

“Just like all sewer systems in this area, inflow from storm water gets into our sewer system and causes pump stations to have to run more, and sometimes the limits of these pumps are exceeded and, therefore, overflows occur,” Robertsdale’s Smith said. “The excess flow also causes challenges at the treatment plant.”

For Orange Beach, Hartley said, stormwater runoff has a minimal effect on its treatment plant because the system is 80 percent pressurized, or closed to the stormwater system.

“With the heavy flows and rains we’ve had this year, we don’t feel the impact because we don’t have as many manholes,” he said. “The streets are flooding and you’ll have a certain amount of infiltration in a gravity system because it opens up to it. Under pressure, it’s a sealed system.”

Every system has spills or overflows, Williams said, and many times they are caused by incidents outside of the system.

“There are various reasons for spills on our system, including lines accidentally cut during construction by contractors, lightning, power outages, line blockages by grease, wipes and other unfitting items, and intense rain,” she said.

Clifford Johnson of Gulf Shores Utilities said the last spill in that city’s system was in 2014, and “we’ve had no major issues from rain.”

Sewer rates in Baldwin County

Riviera: $18 or $23 then $3.95 per 1,000 gallons. Flat rate for sewer for customers not receiving water from Riviera is $36 per month. 

Baldwin County Sewer Service: The standard single-family residential monthly sewer treatment fee is $54.50, and the standard commercial rate is $109 per month. 

Orange Beach: $28 a month. 

Robertsdale: Inside city limits: $16, plus $3.12 per 1,000 gallons

Outside city limits: $21.25, plus $3.98 per 1,000 gallons. 

Gulf Shores: $15 a month for 4,000 gallons, $4.875 per 1,000 gallons above 4,000.