As a result of heavy and intense rains in 2009, a record amount of sewage escaped into Bibb County streams and rivers: more than 38 million gallons.
Authority officials attribute most of this to the timing of intense rain events. But the authority is taking steps to reduce the effects of heavy rains on its system in the future.
The problem is caused when rainwater infiltrates sewage pipes through cracks and breaks, or by flooding into manholes. This fills the sewer lines with more than they can hold, causing spills.
A large portion of the high spill volume in 2009 was caused by turning off a sewage pump station to fix a broken sewer line that was undermining the Macon levee in September.
As a result, millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the Ocmulgee River from areas in the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail and Ocmulgee National Monument.
Without including the four levee-related spills, 2009 saw 86 spills for a total of about 730,170 gallons, according to authority records. Sixty-seven of the 90 total spills were “hydraulic” spills, which happen when rain infiltrates sewer lines. That’s more than three times the past record of 20 hydraulic spills in a year.
The water authority sometimes receives penalties from the state for spills.
Bill Noell, a manager of compliance and enforcement for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the authority was fined $8,800 for spills within the first six months of 2009.
Noell said the EPD is now reviewing spills that happened from September on, including the large spills during the levee disturbance, to decide whether to require the authority to pay further penalties. Spills of more than 10,000 gallons, considered major, are more heavily penalized.
In 2009, the authority had 15 major spills, another record for a single year. (In 2006 and 2007, the authority had no major spills at all.)
When it rains, it pours
In the fall, EPD officials had indicated that they might be lenient regarding the levee-related spills, which followed a rainfall of more than 5 inches in one day. Other sewage utilities in the Atlanta area had even worse spills during the same period.
Heavy rain in April, September and December helped make 2009 Macon’s third-wettest year on record.
A few locations have been the scene of many rain-related sewage spills, particularly areas near the dead end of Lennox Drive and, later in the year, near the authority’s Allen Road pump station. Sabbath Creek sustained the most, receiving about 27 percent of the sewage spilled in 2009.
The midstate has received so much rain since summer, when a statewide drought officially ended, that the ground is likely to remain unable to absorb much additional water.
Georgia’s state climatologist has forecast a wet winter for the state, with the next chance of rain coming this weekend.
“Generally speaking, the ground is saturated like it is now in February or March,” said authority Director Tony Rojas. He predicted more and larger spills at the same locations as the winter continues.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the time of year you have the rain,” Rojas said. In 2003, Macon also had above-average rainfall. But much of it fell during the summer, when plants in their active growth cycle were able to absorb it, he said.
If the levee-related spills are excluded from 2009 totals, 2003 was a slightly worse year for sewage spills. That year, there were 92 spills for a total of 914,675 gallons, according to authority records.
But the rain wasn’t the cause of most of them. Back then, the authority had more problems with roots growing into sewer lines, Rojas said. (Authority records show roots caused 27 spills that year.)
A proactive line-cleaning program and the authority’s investment in new linings for miles of sewer pipe has improved the authority’s track record to zero spills caused by roots last year.
Improvements to help
Rojas said the Macon Water Authority board has been discussing the possibility of speeding up planned maintenance work on sewer lines and the small pump stations that move sewage uphill toward sewage treatment plants.
The authority plans to bid two major projects in January that will build sewage capacity: a rehabilitation of the Allen Road pump station, including installing bigger pumps, for $2 million; and installing a new line between the Corbin and Lennox pump stations for $3 million to $4 million.
The rehabilitation of the Riverside Cemetery pump station, a $2.3 million project, already is under way, Rojas said.
Rojas said the Corbin/Lennox line and improvements to the lift stations there could eliminate half the authority’s spills.
The residential neighborhood that includes Lennox Drive saw 27 spills in 2009.
Rojas said the authority board also has discussed adding another wet well and another force main linking the Allen Road pump station to the sewage treatment plant, which would reduce spills there.
The board might speed plans for finding and fixing sewer leaks and rehabilitating more than 30 small pump stations, Rojas said.
Currently, the authority is budgeting about $650,000 to $750,000 a year for the pump stations, but the authority could borrow $4.4 million to finish them all, potentially taking advantage of current low engineering and construction costs, Rojas said.
“I absolutely see no reason for us to put off any of this,” said Frank Patterson, chairman of the authority’s Engineering Committee. “I am anxiously wanting to move forward. If we have to float a bond issue, it doesn’t matter. We need to address these problems.”
In December, both the authority’s sewage treatment plants violated their environmental permits for exceeding the monthly limit of sewage they were approved to handle, Rojas said.
The limits are based on how much sewage the plant is capable of treating adequately before releasing it back into the river. It was the second year in a row that the Rocky Creek plant had such a violation.
“If it continues to rain like this, I think we will again,” Rojas said.
The heavy rainfall has also caused the authority to re-evaluate its projections for the capacity of the Rocky Creek plant.
The authority was already planning to apply to expand the plant, but it may now seek to add 10 million more gallons of capacity instead of 4 million more, Rojas said.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included this report.
To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.