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Storm water infiltration overflows city sewers

May 26, 2011

(Editor’s note: This a Part Two of a three-part series addressing the problems, causes and solutions of sewage that spills into neighborshoods during fast or heavy rains.)


After seeing storm-induced sewage overflow from manholes in his neighborhood of Woodland Heights for 10 years, Mike Allen decided to pay his former political opponent a visit.
Allen ran against Jeremiah Dumas for Ward 5 alderman in 2008, and he said he and at least one other neighbor gave Dumas a tour of the neighborhood. Even though the tour took place after the storm, Allen said, sewage was still overflowing from manholes and other sewage lines. He said Dumas’s response was quick.
“City workers were present the next day,” Allen said, “and I was told by a neighbor that they found and corrected some problems.”
Dumas also began investigating city records for any oversights that may have kept the city from addressing the problem adequately for so long. What he found was one of four distinct reasons why many areas of Starkville currently suffer from sewage overflow.
Dumas said when he showed city staff pictures he took of the overflow in Woodland Heights, he also asked them for all the information available on sewer issues and improvements in the area. He said the information he has now dates back to 1998, to a citywide smoke test on the sewers. Smoke tests work by filling sewer lines with a smoky dye lighter than air. When that dye escapes to the surface, workers know it must be escaping from a breach in the sewer line. Dumas said this smoke test uncovered several problems with the sewer system.
“To date, all of those issues have been resolved except the issue of storm water infiltration into the sewer lines from private property and service lines,” Dumas said. “I wasn’t a part of those administrations who chose not to take action on those issues, but I would imagine that it dealt with the general idea of telling a landowner what they needed to be doing.”
This unfinished business 1998 is one of the causes of Woodland Heights’ sewage overflow, but to understand what landowners’ rights have to do with the problem, it’s necessary to understand the other three causes.
The second cause is simple: Certain areas of Starkville are lower-lying than others and more susceptible to the floodwaters that break into sewage lines and make them overflow. Allen said Woodland Heights’ low elevation is not the only factor contributing to flooding.
“There is a large, creek-like ditch flowing through our neighborhood that brings a lot of runoff water southwest of us and passes it through our neighborhood,” Allen said. “While largely covered, this ditch has exceeded its capacity at times and overflowed. I also think the sewer lines in our neighborhood are connected to other higher areas. During a rainstorm, that could help explain why the Woodcrest neighborhood seems to get overwhelmed so quickly.”
Another resident, Mediagraphix Photography owner Jim Lytle, said Woodcrest Drive ends up underwater once or twice a year, and the area has one of the lowest elevations in Starkville. Two years ago, he said, the city installed a culvert between Edgewood Drive and Woodcrest Drive to address the issue, inadvertently making it worse for some.
“This culvert is great for property and folks who live upstream, because it does move storm water downstream much quicker,” Lytle said. “The problem, as I see it, is that once it hits Woodcrest, it has nowhere to go. The downstream side of the street going north has had nothing done to it, so there are roots and trees and everything else in the way to keep water from flowing nearly as quickly as it does to get to this point. So, the water has nowhere to go but out of the banks of the creek/stream and onto the street and neighborhood.”
Tree roots are the third cause of the problem. They not only impede the stream’s flow but also break into sewage pipes in search of water, City Engineer Doug Devlin said. When areas like Woodland Heights flood, he said, water flows into the breaches roots create, impacting the sewer lines and causing them to overflow.
“Through trial and error over the past couple of decades, the city has learned that there are specific parts of the sewer system that are very susceptible to root penetration,” Devlin said. “There is a herbicide on the market called “Razorooter II” that, when applied by experienced professional personnel, has been shown to effectively
control root problems for a period of approximately 5 years.”
The main sewage lines that feed the ones going to private homes are called interceptors, Devlin said, and the Old West Point Road interceptor was last treated in 2006. That means it will be treated again this autumn to take advantage of the dry ground, he said, but unusual weather in 2010 has exacerbated the problem.
“A very dry summer and fall like we had last year will cause root re-penetration in advance of the five-year rotation,” Devlin said, “and that is what we found as a contributing factor to the surging problems in Woodland Heights over the past week or so.”
But Lytle said every Ward 5 Alderman for the last 20 years has told him that roots aren’t breaking into the sewer system in Woodland Heights. They are breaking in at points both upstream and downstream from Woodland Heights, he said, and that is the fourth cause of the overflow.
In a letter Dumas wrote to Lytle, Dumas said the work left undone was to address the entrance of storm water through private service lines. Landowners are required by city ordinance to address breaches in lines on their private property, he said, and previous boards left this ordinance unenforced.
“I am really sorry that this hasn’t been corrected before now,” Dumas said in the letter. “I often speak of the ‘sins of our fathers,’ because it has been extremely eye-opening to get on the inside of the city of Starkville and see the issues left undone by previous administrations. You have mentioned beautification issues, but those are quick fixes that went undone as well, and thankfully, we are finally getting to a point with staff and finances that we can begin looking at these significant issues.”

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