Heavy rain pushes millions of gallons of sewer water across portions of Alabama

Published 11:38 am Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Days of rain have left parts of Alabama awash in millions of gallons of dingy water that overflowed from sanitary sewer systems.

On Wednesday, reports submitted to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management showed that more than 18.5 million gallons of sewer water spilled over the past 10 days around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, where the National Weather Service said some spots have received more than 5 inches of rain so far this week.

In the Tennessee Valley, about 4.8 million gallons (18 million gallons) of sewage escaped from sewer pipes in Decatur from Thursday to Saturday, with most ending up in Dry Branch Creek, the Decatur Daily reported.

The general manager of Decatur Utilities, Ray Hardin, said upgrades are continuing, but a city leader said he wants more action.

“I’m sensing a lack of urgency. I guess I want to see someone at DU running around like their hair’s on fire trying to resolve this,” City Council member Billy Jackson, whose district includes most of Dry Branch Creek, told the newspaper.

Sanitary sewer systems are designed to keep sewage in and rainwater out. Decatur’s aging system, much of it clay pipe installed a half-century ago, is failing in that role. Heavy rains cause water to enter the sewer pipes, mixing with the sewage and exceeding the pipe’s capacity.

The result, as could be seen Tuesday in the city, is diluted sewage gushing from manholes.

A state reporting tool that shows sewage overflows by location and amount is fairly new and there’s no way to say whether recent spills are abnormally high, said Jerome Hand, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

It’s also impossible to say whether all the problems are linked to storms or something else, he said.

“It’s probably just too much rain going through the system but we don’t know for sure,” Hand said. “We require these systems to report them and we will investigate them and help them get back into compliance.”

The problem carries health risks.

Sherri Davidson, state epidemiologist for the Alabama Department of Public Health, told the Decatur newspaper. Sewer overflows contain bacteria, viruses and intestinal parasites like hookworms, she said.

Even if people avoid sewer water, sewage can be tracked inside homes on shoes or by pets.