COLUMBIA — About 40 residents met Wednesday at the Boone County Government Center to discuss the problem of sewage overflows in Columbia.
The city had 120 sewage overflows in fiscal 2010, according to Steve Hunt, Columbia environmental services manager. Sewage overflows occur predominantly in basements and through manhole covers and can be very expensive to clean up, he said.
Hunt also said sewage overflows damage public and private property, expose the public to fecal-borne diseases and cause sewage runoff into Hinkson Creek.
Columbia uses separate pipelines to deal with stormwater and sewage, said Columbia Sewer Superintendent Bill Weitkemper. When stormwater leaks into the sewage systems, overflows can occur.
"Basically, there are two reasons for sewage overflows," said David Sorrell, Columbia Sewer Utility manager. "One, you could have an obstruction in the sewer pipe due to tree roots, grease, trash or what-have-you. The other reason is when it rains a lot, you have stormwater inflow and infiltration due to unauthorized connections to the city's sewer system."
Unauthorized connections can include sump pumps that divert stormwater into the city's sewage system, rooftop gutter spouts that drain into the sewer and yard drains that connect to the sewer, Weitkemper said.
Sections 22-215.1 and 22-216.1 of the Columbia Code of Ordinances specifically prohibit such stormwater discharges into the city's sewage main, but Weitkemper said the city has not "aggressively" enforced the ordinances.
Wednesday's meeting, a joint effort of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition and the Osage Group of the Sierra Club, sought to address the issue of sewage overflows and discuss possible ways to induce homeowners and business owners to remove their illegal stormwater connections to the city's sewage utility.
"I have a lot of sympathy for someone who bought an old house and didn't even know it was illegally connected to the sewer," said Ken Midkiff, conservation chair of the Osage Group of the Sierra Club. "We have to differentiate them from people who build and know full well what they're doing is illegal."
Weitkemper cited estimates that suggest up to 80 percent of stormwater inflow to the city's sewer comes from private sources.
The panel debated two methods of inducing property owners to remove their illegal connections: an incentive program and a punitive program.
The incentive program would entail cash reimbursements paid by the city to all who qualify to retrofit their homes. The punitive strategy would issue fines to all homeowners with stormwater drainage violations.
Hunt said he is preparing a draft ordinance to submit to City Council. He said the ordinance would be available to the public on Feb. 17 and would recommend reimbursing owners of single-family homes who fix their sewage connections to make them free of stormwater flow.
"This problem is like death by 1,000 cuts," Midkiff said. "Maybe you're not contributing that much to the problem individually, but if you multiply this by the number of offenders, it becomes a big problem."
The Environmental Protection Agency's recent recommendations to clean up Hinkson Creek complicate this issue. The EPA designated stormwater as one of the creek's pollutants. Removing stormwater from the city's sewage system while reducing the number of sewage overflows will increase the amount of stormwater that ends up in Hinkson Creek.
"If you correct the sewage problems, you're adding to the stormwater problems," Midkiff said.
The EPA's recommendations require that the city reduce the amount of stormwater runoff entering the creek by 39.6 percent.
Another discussion centered around whether homeowners should be responsible for cleaning their basements when sewage overflows occur. Currently, homeowners with sewage backups are responsible for protecting their property.
"The city's position is they shouldn't have bought a house in the flood plain," Weitkemper said Tuesday. "If the city's sewer is backing up in someone's house, I think it's the city's responsibility. I guess I'm the only one who thinks that."
The panel's final recommendation to the public was to keep calling the city with stormwater and sewage problems.
"If you've got a problem, don't give up," Weitkemper said. "We've had 36 homes in town that have backed up 61 times in the past three years. It's important you let us know what the problem is. Don't quit calling just because nothing's been done. If we don't know what the problem is, we can't solve it."
The panel that led the discussion consisted of Midkiff, Weitkemper and Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller. Reuben Stern of the MU journalism faculty moderated.