Giant tubes wide enough for a family dog to trot through wait patiently by the side of the road along Bayou Drive in Fairhope, just across from the Nix Center.
They are shiny and black and clean. They are also the first step in what city officials hope will be a move toward cleaning up Fairhope’s sewer system and reducing the sewage overflows into Mobile Bay. It also is part of the city’s larger effort to spur communities upstream to do the same.
In June Fairhope’s municipal beach was named Alabama’s dirtiest beach, environmental and city officials accepted the city’s part of the blame but were quick to note that their efforts were hampered by a lack of action elsewhere.
“We are going to do our part and we are going to, in four years, have fully updated sewer lines,” said Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson. “But it doesn’t matter if we do everything we need to do, those tests probably would come back the same. It’s not just about what Fairhope is doing, it’s a huge campaign where everybody has a part to play. Water knows no boundaries.”
So, what is Fairhope doing? The giant black sewer lines currently waiting to be lowered into the ground is the beginning of four years of sewer work that will essentially rehabilitate and/or replace defective sewer lines in the city.
Richard Peterson, superintendent of utilities, said to do that, you must start at the beginning, where the sewer lines meet the wastewater plant, located north of City Hall, which was upgraded in 2013.
Restore funds money amounting to $10 million will help pay for the rehabilitation of old gravity collection mains. Several existing lift stations will also be replaced or rebuilt. Most wastewater under the city is moved by gravity, down pipes built into the naturally downward sloping topography, into lift stations where the water is pumped back up to the top of another hill and sent, downhill, to the next lift station.
After flowing through these series of underground roller coasters, the water eventually reaches the wastewater treatment plant.
The problem, Peterson said, is that those lift stations, were built for far fewer gallons of water than currently pump through them.
“On a normal day we may peak at a flow rate 3 million gallons a day of water flowing through but during the heaviest part of some rain events we’re peaking at a rate of 7 – 8 million gallons a day,” Peterson said. “The pumps at the lift stations and the gravity mains they discharge into were not designed to handle that much water.”
The result is overflows, into the streets, into neighborhood yards and into the bay. Peterson said the only way to fix it, and try to keep the flow consistent, is to start at the treatment plant and work outward.
“We’re trying to do it in a systematic way, so each new project gives us an opportunity to upgrade every flow that comes to that particular location,” he said. “The growth hasn’t slowed down for the last three or four years. We think that momentum will continue, and we need to be prepared for it.”
Reviving the aging sewer lines is the immediate fix. Wilson said the city is also looking forward to solutions that do not yet exist.
First, is the introduction of legislation by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D) who met with city officials to discuss the pollution problems. Jones said his team was able to quickly draft legislation that will be introduced next year as part of the Water Resources Development Act to encourage the sharing of data regarding water quality between municipalities. It does not create any new federal mandates.
“This is not a new issue for Fairhope,” Jones said. “They don’t have the information necessary to know what is going on upstream. This will create a repository where information is shared so that any issues can be addressed.
“We’ve seen the issues with the water quality throughout the Black Belt area so it doesn’t take a real scientist to understand those issues can filter down into Mobile Bay and to Fairhope,” Jones said. “It was really easy to understand that, unless they can talk and exchange information with the people upstream, nothing is going to get done.”
Wilson said she hopes that once communities begin talking and sharing data they can move forward toward innovative solutions.
She said the city is looking at an incentivized challenge that will send the problem out to engineers and designers to allow them to propose solutions to help clean the bay, rather than simply hire someone to tackle the job.
“We’re going to have to really bring the most creative people around,” she said. “Let’s treat this as a state of emergency. It’s part awareness and then its part having accessible funds that can help everyone do their part. If we can get the help we need there is economic impact for the whole state to improve the health of Mobile Bay.”
Jones said he was “excited” to see the city moving towards looking to solutions not just within its own borders but throughout the watershed.
“Baldwin County is one of fastest growing counties in Alabama. Fairhope in particular has become this mecca for people who are either moving there or talking about moving. This is an important economic development issue for the whole county,” Jones said.
“At the end of the day clean, fresh water is a bipartisan issue that everyone should be working towards.”