South of downtown, park has its own sewer troubles

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:21 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 20, 2014
John McLeod motions toward Ridgefield Park's manholes July 30. McLeod, a resident in the area, is the president of the Ridgefield Park Association, which is concerned with the sewage leaks. He has appeared at Columbia City Council meetings to discuss it.

COLUMBIA — John McLeod is frustrated with sewage overflows from two manholes in a private park near his home that have become "geysers of sewage."

Ridgefield Park is a private park in southwest Columbia, and McLeod, who lives at 2307 Ridgefield Road, is president of the Ridgefield Park Association. Homeowners in the surrounding neighborhood own the park.

According to Columbia Public Works Department documents, the two problem manholes in the park have overflowed a combined 20 times in the past five years, with 12 overflows recorded in 2013 alone. The manholes are visible from the County House Trail, which runs through the park.

McLeod believes the best solution would be replacing the sewer as soon as possible. The city plans to install a new sewer line in 2021, and city sewer utility manager David Sorrell said that project would significantly reduce the frequency of overflows at the park.

The Ridgefield Park sewer upgrade, estimated to cost $700,000, is one of many sewer projects in line for help across Columbia. According to city documents, there are 13 city sewer projects in progress and 25 others scheduled for construction by 2019 — before the sewer would be replaced in Ridgefield Park. The cost of the 25 projects is an estimated $22 million, and the city still needs $18 million in funding.

Projects that are scheduled before Ridgefield Park include repairs downtown in the Flat Branch watershed, sewer main construction near the upper part of Hinkson Creek and maintenance to reduce sewer backups near Stewart Road.

The problems at the park are primarily due to inflow and infiltration of groundwater or rainwater into the sewer system through leaky pipes or improperly installed downspouts, problems that can cause manholes to overflow.

McLeod said he has spoken four times about the sewer troubles of Ridgefield Park at City Council meetings, most recently on July 21.

"The work we want done, they want to do it in seven years," McLeod said. "We want it done now."

That evening, the council decided to redirect $5.7 million toward sewer projects in downtown Columbia – where old sewer lines don't have the capacity to handle rainwater that gets into the system – to accommodate new apartment complexes and other development. None of these decisions directly affected the timeline for work at  Ridgefield Park.

Lynn Cannon, assistant finance director for Columbia, said City Council could shift projects as long as the budget remained balanced and it would be possible for the council to move the Ridgefield Park project up from its scheduled start in 2021.

"If they wanted to bump that one up, it's a matter of what do we have to move out or forgo in order to do that," Cannon said.

Public Works spokesman Steven Sapp described the process of choosing projects as "a constant evaluation of priorities."

"There is not a 'waiting list,' " Sorrell wrote in an email. "Priority has been given to the areas that have the largest number of backups into buildings and sanitary sewer overflows combined."

There have been 30 sewer overflows in Columbia this year through June, according to city data. In the past five years, there have been more than 300 instances of overflows citywide, with 168 overflows in 2013.

Steve Hunt, a city engineering supervisor, said leaky pipes can be treated by lining the inside of the pipe. He said that work of this nature is at least a year away from being done at Ridgefield Park. 

Sorrell made a comparison to simultaneously deciding when and how to fix two balding tires and a blown water heater.

"You're going to fix the water heater first," Sorrell said.

Impact on the park

Shannon Elliott/ Missourian

Tall grass surrounds a manhole at Ridgefield Park in southwest Columbia on July 30. John McLeod, a resident in the area and president of the Ridgefield Park Association, said mowers keep the grass around the manhole uncut.

Standing on the County House Trail on July 30, McLeod pointed at a manhole about 30 feet away in the fields of the park.

"That'll coat the whole area," McLeod said, gesturing to the grass around the manhole. "It's like a Third World."

Further down, the other problem manhole is shrouded by clumps of dead foliage and piles of brush. A cluster of picnic tables are visible, standing about 75 feet away from the sewer. McLeod noted the smell of sewage in the air.

"And you know that makes picnicking a lot of fun," he said.

Kim Kraus and her husband moved into their house at 2304 Ridgefield Road five years ago. She said her son and daughter know enough now to stay away from the manholes, but strangers to the neighborhood may not be privy to such knowledge.

"We worry about people that use the trail, people who don't know that the wet spot is sewage," Kraus said. "There are tons of people who come in from surrounding streets and play fetch with their dogs, and I'm not sure if they know."

Kraus said she and her family are accustomed to the telltale signs of a sewer overflow: hazard signs placed by the Public Works Department and lime sprinkled atop the contaminated area. Though the top of one manhole has been bolted down, Kraus said waste still manages to make its way out.

"It's really spectacular," Kraus said. "The sewage would pop the top off, and it would look like a fountain. Now it comes out the side."

Rainwater issues

Sorrell said the pipes than run through Ridgefield Park actually have more than twice the necessary capacity during dry weather — it's rain that causes problems.

"There are many manholes that overflow during periods of heavy rainfall, due to inflow and infiltration of storm water into the sanitary sewer collection system," Sorrell wrote in an email. "The long term solution is to reduce the volume of storm water that enters the collection system during storms, provide storage, or a combination of the two."

McLeod said he met with several public officials July 9 about the park's sewer troubles. Those in attendance included Sorrell, Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas and Public Works Director John Glascock. All parties at the meeting agreed the problems in Ridgefield Park are related to excess water getting into the sanitary system, McLeod said.

McLeod said he was approached again by Glascock on July 21 and remains optimistic that Ridgefield Park will see sewer improvements.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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