(Editor’s note: This a Part Three of a three-part series addressing the problems, causes and solutions of sewage that spills into neighborshoods during fast or heavy rains.)
By STEVEN NALLEY
Jim Lytle’s anger with Starkville’s municipal government was palpable when he posted photos of sewage overflow in his neighborhood to Facebook on April 20.
The photos show Lytle’s neighborhood, Woodland Heights, plagued with overflowing manholes and flooded streets. In the album’s description, Lytle said he was “disgusted” and “fed up” with the mayor and the board of aldermen, and comments on the album express similar anger.
Lately, Lytle’s anger has subsided, and he says he has hope that the sewage overflow will subside as well, largely thanks to Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas.
“I am amazed at what Jeremiah, working within the city departments, has been able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time, considering we have dealt with this for 20 years,” Lytle said. “I have not always agreed with Jeremiah and his votes, but I must give credit to him. He has taken a serious, personal interest.”
The city of Starkville has begun to take some of the most significant steps in years to address sewage overflow problems across town.
In Woodland Heights alone, Dumas said, significant progress has already been made.
“We have dye tested for infiltration points, we have conducted a TV inspection, and with both, we found several points of storm water infiltration and a couple of significant blockage points due to roots,” Dumas said. “This is significant in that we have a system designed for a certain flow volume, and when flow is exponentially increased due to record rain events on top of the fact that our main service lines are partially blocked with roots, it obviously causes problems.”
To address those problems, Dumas said, city staff will not only use herbicides on roots breaching the sewer lines but also search for breaches with dye tests, in which dye is traced from surface streams to sewer systems. He said the city also plans to address flow of storm water into the city sewer system from private sewer lines.
In 1998, Dumas said, the city conducted smoke tests on the sewer system and corrected several problems, except for infiltration of water into sewer lines on private property, which in turn enters the city sewer system and causes problems elsewhere. An ordinance requires owners of such property to correct those problems themselves, Dumas said, but the city did not enforce that ordinance at the time.
“We are preparing documentation that will be sent to landowners who are contributing to the problem so that they can fix their problems,” Dumas said. “It is also understood that we will no longer be complacent on addressing private property issues that impact public infrastructure and private property downstream from the issue.”
According to a report from Public Services Director Doug Devlin, the city has already conducted repairs in many areas, including Woodland Heights. For example:
u The city repaired storm water infiltration into two manholes near Woodland Heights by April 28, one near Southern Shade Apartments and another at Glenn Hollows Condominiums.
u At Helen Circle, the city diagnosed oil and grease from surrounding apartments as the cause of overflow and implemented a a schedule to clean the oil and grease every three months.
u In Longmeadow, near Starkville High School, the city completed treatment of roots penetrating the sewer system, and will continue to monitor the situation there until June 30. The city is also installing a check valve to address sewage backup into the basement of Longmeadow resident Andy Londo.
Londo said he was impressed with the city’s response.
“They were right on it,” Londo said. “We were really grateful the city has taken such prompt action on it.”
Lytle said he could hardly think of anything more the city could do to address sewage overflow, and he is especially glad to hear the city’s compliance officer will be holding people accountable for storm water intruding into the system through their private lines. These property owners may not be aware of problems in their private lines or the problems they cause elsewhere, he said.
“I know it is a process, and I know the city has got to give property owners time to fix the problem,” Lytle said. “I can only hope that in time, the majority of the voids in the sewer system are fixed and our neighborhood will no longer flood.”
The only thing Lytle said he still wants the city to do is clean out the stream flowing through Woodland Heights to reduce flooding. Dumas, however, said the primary cause of the overflow is not the storm water, however much there may be. Rather, he said, the problems are the breaches in city and private sewer lines that let storm water into the system.
Another Woodland Heights resident, Mary Farris, said she disagreed with Dumas because the overflow only happens during heavy rains.
“It only happens when the ditches get so full, so overrun, that the water has nowhere else to go,” Farris said.
Dumas said he has faith in the plans city staff have devised so far to address the sewage overflow problem, but he said it is an evolving process that he will keep monitoring.
Because there is still so much research and work to be done, Dumas said, it is too early to be sure how much the project will cost. Dumas did say killing the roots breaching the sewer pipes in North Starkville alone is “costing several thousand dollars.”
“As for the cost in other parts of Starkville, I am not sure,” Dumas said. “Some of these are simple fixes that have just been discovered and that we were able to repair, some are issues on private property that improper construction and development caused, and we will be notifying the property owners of these issues. Some are costly, and I don’t know yet what the costs are. At this time, I do not see it coming to a bond issue to fix the system.”
For now, Lytle said he remains cautiously optimistic.
“I believe the next time we have a heavy rain, the sewers will not overflow as bad,” Lytle said. “I would love to believe they will not overflow all together, but I am a skeptic. I guess I will have to see this with my own eyes to believe it to be possible.”
CORRECTION: The second part of “System Failure,” which appeared in Starkville Daily News on Thursday, May 26, referred to Doug Devlin as city engineer. Edward Kemp is the city engineer, and Devlin is the city’s director of public services. SDN apologizes for this error.