Macon Water Authority plans sewer improvements in wake of spring storms

Years of sewage spills behind Macon’s Riverside Park neighborhood peaked in recent months, when five heavy rains caused repeated large spills into people’s backyards.

Although the Macon Water Authority has known about the problems with the sewage line in that area for a year and a half, spills there have only gotten worse. Authority officials attribute that to last year’s drought and this spring’s heavy rains, and they say improvements are under way to help.

The authority also is applying for federal stimulus funds to find and fix cracks and other problems causing storm water to seep into sewer lines, said Tony Rojas, the authority’s director.

A swollen Sabbath Creek, along with sewage, has inundated backyards in Riverside Park, which is located between Interstate 75 and the Ocmulgee River. Darryl Macy, the authority’s conveyance manager, said spills have hit the same yards on Willowdale Drive and Clairmont Avenue multiple times since March.

But sewage spills have also been problematic in neighborhoods to the west of Riverside Drive, because the entire area is part of two interconnected drainage basins, said Ray Shell, the assistant authority director. Authority records indicate that more than 440,000 gallons of sewage has spilled in the basins since the beginning of 2006.

The biggest spills have been on an easement at the dead end of Lennox Drive. The area is just 150 yards or so from the Ocmuglee River. Paths run along authority easements, where some people walk and jog.

Since identifying Lennox as a “hot spot” in 2007, the authority estimates that almost 350,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Sabbath Creek there.

Two of those spills resulted in fines to the authority of $4,400 from the state last year, Rojas said. More fines are expected for the four spills of more than 30,000 gallons that happened there this year, he said.

Rojas said spills were probably happening in the Lennox area for years, undetected by the authority.

Cheryl Rozier, who has lived at the end of Willowdale Drive for 12 years, said her family had long noticed a foul odor after heavy rains. It turned out to be coming from spills in the woods behind her home.

For the last 18 months she has been complaining to the water authority and the state Environmental Protection Division.

“There will be feces on the ground, toilet paper in the trees, condoms,” she said. “It’s ungodly.”

Rozier expressed frustration at how long it has taken the authority to fix the sewer line. “They need to put a new system in,” she said. “Fix it. Get it over with.”

Shell said there are two main problems causing the spills. One is inadequate capacity and poor flow in the main sewer line in the area. The other is storm water infiltrating sewer lines, which can fill them up and cause overflows.

The first problem is with the sewer line that runs between a lift station at Lennox Drive and the next station, called Corbin. Lift stations pump sewage uphill toward a sewage treatment plant.

Shell said the sewer lines in the area were either poorly designed or planned very piecemeal when they were installed 30 years ago. The trunk line between Lennox and Corbin isn’t properly elevated for the sewage to flow downhill, and the line is too narrow for the volume of sewage coming from north Bibb.

To fix this problem, the authority is taking bids on a $4 million project to run a parallel sewer line between the two lift stations. It will take the overflow during times when the original line fills up, Shell said.

In two weeks, the Corbin lift station is scheduled to get new pumps and motors to increase efficiency, Macy said.

“This will fix the Lennox issues but will not cure the (storm-water inflow and infiltration) problems west of the interstate,” Shell said.

To deal with infiltration, authority employees walked along the lines after this spring’s rains and found missing manhole covers and other problems, Macy said.

Although the authority has been using flow monitors to pinpoint leaks in the sewer lines for more than a year, the utility owns only 12 monitors, and they must be moved after each rain in a slow process of elimination, Macy said.

Rojas said the authority usually budgets $1.35 million a year for reducing sewer infiltration, but the authority board voted to cut back to $850,000 this year and next year so the rest could be spend on water system valves.

The authority is applying for $1.2 million in federal stimulus money targeted toward water and sewer infrastructure projects, Shell said. Once local matching funds are added, the authority would spend a total of $3 million to pay contractors to find and fix breaks in the sewer lines of the Sabbath Creek and Corbin basins.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.