COLUMBIA — For residents of Columbia's sewer Basin D, the tide is about to turn, but it will turn slowly.
Beginning this week, TREKK Design Group LLC will test and analyze the sanitary sewer system in Basin D, which is in the area of Broadway, Ash Street and Stewart Road. It will look for sources of stormwater inflow such as drains, downspouts and sump pumps and for places where groundwater seeps into cracked sewer pipes, many of which are old and made of clay.
Once TREKK has reported its findings and recommendations, the city will decide on the most cost-effective way to bring the area up to federal guidelines and help curb backups, environmental services manager Steve Hunt said. He thinks the city can get the work under way in fiscal 2012.
But the TREKK study won't come cheap. The city will pay $401,590, and the solution could cost five times that much. An earlier pilot study on the basin cost $65,580. And that's for just one of the city's 64 basins, 57 of which have problem with inflow during wet weather, Public Works Director John Glascock said.
Auben Galloway of Callahan and Galloway, which manages property in Basin D, said he is happy the city is taking action. "I don't know if there is a good answer, but at least they are taking steps to find them."
When a storm dumped four inches on the city in one hour last summer, it backed up sewer lines and left a pool of water and sewage 12 inches deep in the lower level of a triplex at 307 W. Broadway that Galloway's company manages. The sewage had been diluted by the large amount of rainwater, but the water was black, Galloway said.
"It's difficult to tell a tenant as they watch their belongings floating around that we just have to wait for it to go down," Galloway said.
The room drained by sunrise the next morning and was sanitized and dried out. But now Galloway has to tell potential renters about the problem, and he requires them to get renters' insurance.
Galloway is considering installing a device that would keep sewage from backing into the triplex, and he thinks the city could help with the costs. He recognizes, though, that would simply divert the problem to someone else's property.
Sewers have to be a priority in Columbia. The EPA already has taken legal action against Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield for sewer problems. Columbia is the fifth largest city in Missouri and could be next, Hunt said. He added that allowing stormwater to enter the sanitary sewer system is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
A previous master plan study done in 2004 revealed that 57 of Columbia's 64 water basins have excess water flow, Glascock wrote in a memo to the City Council. That study cost around $800,000, but it went far beyond water basins and projected Columbia's sewer needs for the next 20 years, Hunt said.
The uncertainty about the total cost of addressing the problems that TREKK finds in Basin D extends through the city. The staff in the sewer utility doesn't have a firm handle on how much money it will take to address the problem. It's clear, though, that it would be expensive. For example, Hunt said it would cost $33 million — or $20 a foot — to replace the 312 miles of public clay pipe that need to be examined.
Cities all over the United States are dealing with similar problems. In Columbia's case, much of the clay pipe was laid in the '70s and '80s. Clay pipe generally lasts 50 to 70 years, which would give Columbia's pipes another 20 to 30 years, Hunt said.
Because of the number and age of the pipes, rehabilitating the sewer lines is going to be a journey, Hunt said. Glascock said the same at a recent meeting of the Columbia City Council.
"It's gonna take 25 to 30 years just to get a program started," he said.
Glascock said one challenge moving forward is figuring out how to help homeowners pay for any problems discovered with private sewer lines.
"We're going to have to come back to (City Council) at a later date and say, here's what we found, now how do we fund it. ... The homeowner is not going to be able to pay for all of it, so we're going to have to come up with a way to fund it."
TREKK was scheduled to begin its testing on Monday. It will use smoke tests to find defective lines, and it will send two-person teams to 700 buildings to compile basement flooding histories and to examine floor drains and sump pumps. They also will look for down spouts, uncapped clean-outs and stairwell drains that dump storm water into sewage lines.
Meanwhile, Hunt hopes to the City Council will pass new sewer regulations before the next fiscal year so that the utility can start fixing private sewer lines and connectors sooner. The ordinances also would regulate sump pumps, downspouts and area drains connected to private lines in an effort to reduce inflow.