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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010 02:24 pm

Storm over sewers

Recent flooding highlights Springfield’s infrastructure needs

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Water bubbles out of a manhole cover near the intersection of Third Street and Capitol Avenue, where a young woman, Leanna Pokora, died last month after her vehicle stalled in the flooded underpass.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE


While relaxing in Florida on a Wednesday in May, Ruth Yu received one of those phone calls – the kind with the potential to destroy even a perfect vacation. On the other end of the line was her dog walker who explained that her Woodland Avenue home had seen serious flooding after a major rain swept Springfield.

“We’ll take care of it when we get back,” Yu responded initially. Think again, her dog walker told her. “Finally, she came through the phone and slapped me,” Yu says. It wasn’t just a little bit of excess water around her home. The car parked in Yu’s attached garage had been submerged up to the dashboard in water that the sewers underfoot couldn’t take on, and the basement was a pool of muddy water. By the time the Yu family returned to Illinois three days later, professionals they’d hired over the phone had already started the cleanup, but the odor greeting them at the front door was hardly the ideal homecoming.

Yu’s neighbors all have similar tales ripe with descriptions of stalled or destroyed cars, toilet paper pushed up backyard drains and raw sewage flowing backwards through their lower level toilets. After another heavy rain fell in August, many of Yu’s neighbors found themselves repeating the cleanup they’d just completed.

Ruth Yu's Woodland Avenue basement took on about 4 feet of water after a major rain flooded her neighborhood this past May. Three cars were also damaged while parked in the garage due to extreme flooding. Although city officials say the problem in the pip
PHOTO BY RACHEL WELLS

“So far, they’ve looked and there’s been a lot of debris,” Yu says. “But I can’t believe that’s going to take care of the problem.”

After the August flooding, Terrence Paoli, who lives in the same neighborhood as Yu, circulated a petition hoping the strength of a group complaint would lead to answers. “I think, really, our wish is that there was some further investigation into the problem and that we get a response.”

The city did respond, but continues to offer the same daunting refrain: Old pipes tasked with handling more water than they’re designed to carry mean problems will occur. It’s just a matter of when and where. “We’ve had problems everywhere, if you think about it, but it’s really hit and miss,” says Michael Wallner, superintendent of the Springfield public works sewer division. 

Friends and relatives have since placed memorials at the site in Pokora’s name.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
Anne Logue agrees flooding is not just a problem limited to Yu and Paoli’s neighborhood. The Sangamon Valley Group Sierra Club board member sits on a citizens advisory committee that’s reviewing the environmental effects the area’s aging sewer systems have on nearby bodies of water. She says flooding is a problem throughout the city – from the Hazel Dell area on the south side to Bengel Street on the north end. Both Logue and Yu also reference flooding under a downtown underpass that resulted in the Aug. 20 drowning of 23-year-old Leanna Pokora.

But as the problem has gotten worse with more extreme rain events in the last couple of years, the city has cut back on sewer maintenance. Wallner estimates that the city used to clean 50 to 70 miles of sewers every year, but the sewer division has been a victim of the city’s budget woes. Through attrition, it’s lost four members from its cleaning and repair crews, bringing the on-site sewer staff down to only 15 members. Wallner says the city now can manage to clean only about 40 miles of pipe each year. 

The city also maintains a long-range plan identifying about 65 different sewer projects to be completed in the next 10 years. But Wallner and public works superintendent Mike Norris say the continually revised $52.7 million plan is really more of a wish list.

Even so, just refurbishing or replacing the sewer system that’s already in place isn’t a comprehensive enough approach, nor is it necessarily thinking long-term, Logue says. She adds that the root of flooding problems is not just too much water but also too many impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks, roads and parking lots – infrastructure for which there are greener alternatives.

Sewer separation
In large part, the city blames residents’ problems on the design of sewer pipes. Much of the city operates on a combined sewer system, in which the same pipes handle both sanitary and storm water. When those pipes become overloaded, the water can sometimes snake its way back up through basement toilets and drains, flooding homes and businesses.

“I don’t think the city is any different from any other municipality in the United States,” Norris says. More than 770 communities across the country operate on a combined sewer system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, some of those pipes are more than 100 years old, making them prone to cracks and collapses as well as mystery connections to unmapped pipes.

The alternative to combined sewers is a separated system, which anything built after about the 1960s typically runs on, including the more recently developed parts of Springfield. Because sanitary water flushed from homes travels down different pipes than the water collected during a rain, backups shouldn’t happen due to severe weather under a separated system. Anything headed down the newer storm drains is released directly into ditches and creeks, lessening the pressure on the Springfield Metro Sanitary District because it doesn’t have to treat the separated system’s storm water, which is free of fecal matter.

But to separate Springfield’s entire system would cost more money and take more time than the city can possibly afford, Norris says. “What it comes down to is the ability to do it, number one. The money involved is second.” 

Regardless, some degree of separation might get pushed on the city, depending on the outcome of a study reviewing the volume and frequency of “combined sewer overflows.” These overflows are made up of any water that flows to larger pipes controlled by the Springfield Metro Sanitary District, but that is in excess of the SMSD’s treatment capacity. Because the overflows contain fecal matter from homes and oils from roadways, they can pollute the waterways into which they flow. The SMSD’s seven overflow points are on Spring Creek and Sugar Creek, which empty into the Sangamon River. As of last week, the SMSD this year had issued 22 warnings that combined sewer overflows had taken place at one or more overflow points.

Because the overflows potentially contribute to pollution problems, the SMSD is performing a three-year study, as mandated by the EPA. Should the 2012 study results show that the Springfield-area sends too much overflow into the waterways, corrective action of some sort will be necessary.

Although reluctant to look so far ahead, both Norris and SMSD director and engineer Gregg Humphrey say combined sewer separation could become part of the long-term control plan that will be formed based on the study. But even with sewer separation, residents’ water issues wouldn’t be fully resolved. “You still get flooding with a 100-year event because sewers are sized for five- or ten-year events,” Norris says. Because sanitary sewers would be separate from storm sewers, backups into homes would be less likely, but street flooding would likely remain an issue.

Should the pollution study find a problem with overflows, another potential corrective action that could be prescribed is additional treatment capacity, a project the SMSD is already undertaking. A new plant expected to be complete around February 2012 will increase overall capacity by 30 million gallons of water per day to 313 million gallons per day. A rehabilitation project at another plant, expected to be complete by 2017, will increase capacity to 328 million gallons per day. Still, exceptionally wet years like this year and last year will likely exceed the district’s treatment capacity.

“You can’t design for the ultimate Mother Nature’s going to throw at you because no one knows what that is,” Humphrey says. “You build what’s economically feasible.”

The increased capacity could ease in-town flooding issues, but not much. The SMSD might have more capacity, but without more capacity added to the collection system, which is the city’s responsibility, treatment plant upgrades won’t do much to help flooding issues, Humphrey says.

Cars wade through massive puddles at MacArthur Boulevard and Outer Park Drive after heavy rains doused the area in May. Public works officials and environmental groups say impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt contribute to flooding issues.
PHOTOS BY DAN A.K.A. HAM GUY FROM FLICKR.COM

Concrete conveyer
Logue says that rather than collecting all of the excess water in traditional sewer pipes and sending it off for treatment, there’s another, much more basic defense that could help Springfield’s flooding situation. 

“The obvious problem is impervious surfaces,” she says. “When you have a surface that water doesn’t sink into, then obviously you have a problem with flooding.”
Humphrey and Wallner agree that the blanket of concrete and asphalt that is downtown Springfield contributes to flooding problems. As the rain falls, it travels across those surfaces – parking lots, roads and sidewalks – until it finds a low spot. 

Other Illinois cities are already testing multiple approaches that would help water penetrate the ground where it lands instead of moving away and pooling in low spots ripe for flooding, Logue says. Permeable pavement, green roofs, rain gardens, wetlands and rain barrels could all help mitigate flooding issues. “Basically, it’s slowing the whole process down and that’s the point. That’s the problem, it [the rain] just comes down too fast,” Logue says.

She says Chicago is a good example of a city embracing alternative infrastructure. Already, the Windy City is experimenting with permeable pavement through its green alleys program. According to Chicago’s transportation department, between 2006 and 2009 the city installed more than 100 green alleys, paved with asphalt and concrete that are designed to let storm water pass through the pavement and drain into the ground. The system alleviates additional pressure on the sewer system while also recharging groundwater supplies and filtering pollution.

Norris, Springfield’s public works director, agrees the alternatives Logue suggests would help curb some of the city’s problems. “Any of the green infrastructure – rain gardens, bio-swales, that kind of stuff, helps to dissipate storm water before it gets to the system and, frankly, it’s a wonderful thing,” he says. 

Green measures that can help reduce pressure on city sewer pipes include hooking up a rain barrel to gutters on a house.
But porous pavement like that Logue refers to can be costly, and the funding climate can make or break any long-term solution, whether green infrastructure, added capacity, improved pipes or a combination of all three. Logue is optimistic that green infrastructure funding opportunities will become available for Springfield, but she says the city isn’t looking far enough ahead.

“They’re in crisis management, they’re just trying to fix the problem now,” Logue says. “And that’s where Springfield gets in trouble, when they think short-term and then they come up with these problems and they’re like, ‘Well, how did this happen?’ Well, if you’d had a long-term approach we wouldn’t be here.”

She says harvesting rain on an individual level – rain barrels and green roofs, for instance – would help keep water from overloading sewer pipes and contributing to environmental problems, but the city must provide incentives such as tax breaks or rebates to get enough residents and business owners to come on board.

“My own personal opinion is the community needs to be putting the pressure on for a longer-term solution. … That [green infrastructure] takes into account the water pollution issue and it’s also just a smarter way of handling the water,” Logue says. “We’re kind of stuck with it [the combined sewer system]. Harvesting the rain water residentially would be a way to stop it even before it gets into the combined sewer system.”

Lingering worries
The city recently gave the pipes near Yu’s home the OK – there were no collapses, just debris. “The pipe is in good shape and functioning,” Wallner says.

While Yu is encouraged by the city’s rapid response, she says she worries another heavy rain will reveal more problems and once again cause damage. Her insurance company was good about helping her family recover flooding costs this summer, but what if it happens again? How will anyone in the neighborhood be able to sell a home now that flooding has reared its ugly head? And what about those who don’t have insurance? Or those who have lost more than physical property? Yu asks.

“When that young girl drowned, it puts everything in perspective,” Yu says, brushing aside her personal water woes. “It [flooding] is a problem that’s going to affect everyone.” 

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.
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