Record rains in February gave the Macon Water Authority its first real opportunity to test whether almost $15 million in sewer system improvements have paid off in reduced sewage spills.
The answer seemed to be yes: Areas that had seen millions of gallons spilled in the past had no spills even after nearly 13 inches of rain fell in February.
But 33 spills, including eight major spills of more than 10,000 gallons, happened at other locations during the month. Many of these were repeat spills into Lake Tobesofkee, with a dozen spills from three manholes in backyards next to the lake in the Glen Echo subdivision.
That has been frustrating for homeowners such as Dale Sprinkle, whose house overlooks the manholes.
Its unfortunate and Im not happy about it, but I dont guess I can complain, he said. They seem to be doing what they can.
He said authority employees have checked the area multiple times a day and put lime on the areas where sewage has spilled.
But its been running a lot of pure sewage into the lake, he said.
The area that drains to Lake Tobesofkee has received an estimated 94,625 gallons of spilled sewage so far this year.
Authority Director Tony Rojas said these spills tell the authority that where we went next to analyze our system was the right spot, noting that the authority has been proactive in dealing with the problem.
The authority paid a contractor $1.3 million last year to check manholes and use closed-circuit cameras to study sewer lines in the Lake Tobesofkee drainage area. The effort, completed in October, involved looking for pipe breaks that might be allowing rain water to infiltrate and overwhelm the lines, causing spills.
Michel Wanna, the authoritys field operations director, said this section of the authoritys system has a lot of broken manholes and old clay and concrete pipe, materials that are no longer used for sewer lines.
The authority expects to bid a contract within two to three months for about $2 million worth of work to fix the problems that were found.
Rojas said those funds may not cover all the problems identified. But the authority has committed to $8 million in sewer improvements from a bond sale.
The authority made the Lake Tobesofkee area a priority because of the potential for public exposure to the sewage, said Ray Shell, the authoritys assistant director.
Improvements pay off
The authority has done similar work in other parts of its system that had seen even bigger spills, with positive results that were essentially confirmed for the first time in recent weeks. Among them:
Similar find and fix programs for sewer lines in the Corbin Avenue/Sabbath Creek drainage basin for $2 million and the Echeconnee Creek drainage basin for $1.2 million.
A new $4.8 million sewer line leading from the Lennox pump station, whose innovative design won an award from the Georgia Engineering Alliance. Before the new pipe was installed, the area had seen 15 major spills over three years.
The overhaul of the Allen Road pump station for $1.7 million and the addition of a second sewer line and pump station at Allen Road for $5.2 million. More than 2.7 million gallons had spilled in the area even as additional flow was being added from Byron.
The projects were all part of a 2010 consent order with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The order acknowledged that the authority had already planned the new projects, but the authority agreed to a timeline for completing them, as well as a fine of $81,400 for 18 sewage spills totaling more than 30,000 gallons each between September 2009 and March 2010.
Three of the five projects in the consent order were finished ahead of schedule. The final one, the Echeconnee improvements, was supposed to be completed last summer and was finished last week, Rojas said. He said the authority kept the EPD informed about the delays, and EPD was satisfied with the authoritys progress.
Emily Wingo, who oversees larger waste water utilities south of Atlanta for the EPD, said the authority has pretty much complied with the order. When it comes to the recent spills, she said EPD is still collecting information on spills statewide in the wake of Februarys heavy rains.
The Allen Road project was especially complex because it involved running almost a mile of pipe underneath the swamp south of Macon.
The original pipe in the area, laid in 1977, was put in by clearing a swath of the swamp and building a road through it before burying the pipe.
But this time the authority hired a contractor to lay a wire by hand across the wetland before using a drill to create a hole for the pipe. The pipes joints were fused together before 1,000-foot sections were pulled through the hole with a cable, as deep as 50 feet below the surface, Shell said.
We garnered national attention for that because of the length and size of the pipe, said Shell, who presented a paper about it at a recent American Society of Civil Engineers conference. He also credited the Macon engineering firm Carter & Sloope for the design.
Rojas said the method didnt disturb the wetland and was cheaper than burying the pipe, because current regulations would have required the authority to preserve or create wetlands elsewhere to make up for the damage.
Bob Hargrove, whose wetland property had been deluged with previous sewage spills near the Allen Road pump station, praised the quality of the authoritys work there.
The new line was laid with a minimum of environmental damage, and it has been effective in pumping the sewage to (the) plant without any spills since construction, he wrote in an e-mail.
Last year, the amount of sewage escaping to state waters from authority sewers plummeted, although Rojas acknowledged that the drought probably contributed to the extent of the drop. The previous two years had each been record-setting: In 2010, 18 million gallons of sewage contaminated local lakes, streams and rivers from the authoritys system; in 2011, the amount climbed to 22 million gallons. But in 2012 just 70,875 gallons of sewage escaped into waterways, and only two of the spills were considered major.
Spill totals for just the first two months of 2013 have already far outstripped that. Besides the repeat Tobesofkee spills, three spills were caused by a contractors bypass pumps being overwhelmed by the flow of sewage during heavy rains, and three happened at the North OHara lift station.
The parking lot of Virginia College saw two major spills totalling 152,065 gallons, which drained to Rocky Creek.
The manhole there is only 3 feet above the sewer pipe and may have to be raised as a temporary fix, but in the long term the authority must investigate sewer lines to the north to figure out where the stormwater is getting in, Rojas said. Some work has already been done on sewer lines near the State Farmers Market, where a pipe collapsed under Oglesby Place in 2011.
Some of the spills occurred at manholes that were close together and could have been counted as a single, larger spill, Shell acknowledged. That would have meant the authority had a smaller total number of spills, but more major spills, which can trigger EPD fines.
Shell said the authority wasnt trying to avoid the penalties. The authority chose to count the spills separately at each manhole for accuracy, he said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.