Deluge riles Pueblo County

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Utilities crews diverted some overflows to another drain, as depicted here. - COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS UTILITIES
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Utilities
  • Utilities crews diverted some overflows to another drain, as depicted here.

Heavy rains caused stormwater and raw sewage to mingle in Colorado Springs before being sent down Fountain Creek to Pueblo, irking Pueblo County commissioners.

In a story published Sunday, the Pueblo Chieftain reports:
Pueblo County commissioners are asking Colorado Springs Utilities to explain a report that raw sewage was spilled into Fountain Creek over Mother’s Day weekend.

About 1.25 million gallons of precipitation, wastewater and groundwater was bypassed into the storm drain system at 31st Street in Colorado Springs, containing an estimated 352,880 gallons of raw sewage that passed into Fountain Creek from May 8-11, according to a report by Colorado Springs Utilities to the state.

On May 9, two wastewater manholes on 31st Street were observed to be overflowing. Basements of nearby homes were flooding and could not be cleared by vacuum trucks sent to the area. Pumping to relieve pressure from groundwater and precipitation was initiated at four other locations, a May 15 report said.

“Over several days, crews manned these bypass locations 24/7 and, with constant re-evaluation of collection system conditions, systematically eliminated bypassing to the storm drain system through redirection of wastewater to other areas of the collection system as well as bulk hauling of wastewater directly to the Las Vegas Water Resource Recovery Facility,” the report stated.
Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says the city reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that about 300,000 gallons of sewage was mixed with about 900,000 gallons of stormwater over the Mother's Day weekend.

Berry downplayed the incident, saying the sewage was so diluted that there was no real danger to the public's health, and that Utilities crews continue to stand by in the Pleasant Valley area where the problem originated.

"Basically, what is going on is, we’re seeing an evolutionary byproduct with the Waldo Canyon Fire, combined with a naturally high groundwater table at Pleasant Valley, and you combine that with heavy flows through the burn scar," he says. The fire's burn scar, he says, causes more drainage to flow into the Pleasant Valley area.

The issue is exacerbated by a lot of sump pumps in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood that empty stormwater into, and help to overwhelm, the wastewater system. Berry says the city is unable to force those homeowners to stop emptying into the sewer system.

"We have very little legal teeth to force them to change it," he says.

When two manholes overflowed due to the high flows stemming from heavy, rain-caused flooding and the sump pumps pumping water into the sewer system, Utilities by law had to report those overflows, he says.

Berry adds the city has spent millions of dollars upgrading sewer lines over the past 10 years, so the problem isn't due to an inadequate wastewater system. "There's no wastewater system in the country ... designed to carry groundwater flows," he says. 

Berry had issued a news release about the Pleasant Valley problem last week:
I wanted to alert you to the presence of our crews around the Pleasant Valley neighborhood/Westside area today. This is not an active situation. Our crews are on standby with pumps and vac trucks after we experienced large amounts of groundwater infiltration into this portion of our wastewater system last week. We believe the primary causes of that infiltration were incorrectly installed sump pumps in the general area, to include the Pleasant Valley neighborhood, and older customer-owned wastewater service lines.

This is not an issue of our system exceeding its wastewater capacity or due to aging infrastructure on our end of the system. Most of this part of our system underwent extensive rehabilitation over the last 10 years.

Groundwater infiltration into our wastewater system and customer-owned service lines can cause backups into customer homes or the environment, as wastewater pipes are not designed to carry stormwater/groundwater.

I wrote a blog about the sump pump issue last week: https://www.csu.org/Blog/archive/2015/05/13/properly-installed-sump-pumps-can-save-you-and-worry.aspx.

The sump pump message is an important and timely one for your viewers, as I understand people are rushing out to buy these to keep their basements dry. If your viewers want to purchase a sump pump or have an existing sump pump, it's vitally important that these are not connected to our wastewater system via indoor plumbing or a direct connection to customer-owned wastewater service lines. In reality, customers have the highest risk from incorrectly installed sump pumps, as wastewater is often pushed back into a home first as a service line is pushed past its capacity.

A licensed plumber can assist your viewers with this evaluation and can help them make needed corrections. In older parts of the city, people should also have their service lines inspected by a licensed contractor on, at least, a bi-annual basis.

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