Seventeen million gallons of waste flow through Columbia's sewers every day. Beneath the streets, large metal pipes snake and twist their way across the city.
Ultimately, they wind their way to Columbia's wastewater treatment plant in the southwest part of the city. Altogether, Columbia has about 695 miles of sewer pipes servicing the city. That's longer than a round trip to Chicago.
But the system is old and the pipes have seen better days. The city first installed a sewer system in the early 1900s; many of those pipes are still in use today. But a century of wear and tear has taken its toll.
David Sorrell, engineering manager for the sanitary sewer utility says the city is already noticing problems. The city's sewer utilities responded to 36 reported backups between July 1st and August 15th."Six of those were caused by force main broken or vandalism, something like that. The other 30 were due to rainfall getting into the system. The pipes are old they’re cracked. Water comes in and when it rains the water in the ground, basically it's going to find that old ditch," Sorrell said.
Columbia's city council took notice of the problem. During the July 21st council meeting, members voted on a resolution that would delay other projects and appropriate more than $2.1 million dollars for the Flat Branch watershed sewer relief efforts. The plan would fund improvements to the sewer line running along Elm Street downtown all the way to the Quarry Heights neighborhood.
But some residents like Mary Hussman are concerned that the resolution ignored previous promises to improve the sewer system elsewhere in the city because the council favored downtown expansion. "As I collected signatures for the repeal of the Opus project there were two comments I heard over and over again. We don’t need any more upscale student housing. Enough is enough. I was also repeatedly told that they believe the council is bending over backwards, forwards, and whatever position corporate developers demand," Hussman said.
The controversial Opus housing project promised 450 thousand dollars to Columbia infrastructure, but Council member Karl Skala said it may not be enough to offset the strain a large student housing complex would put on the sewer system. "If we're relieving some of the sewer downtown we are also connected to all of the rest of the sewers. And to impact an already overburdened system requires a comprehensive look at all of this relief, the kind of comprehensive relief we don’t have money for unless we are deferring some rather large projects," Skala said.
The renovations to the sewer system would take an estimated two years, while the Opus development could be built sooner. Council member Ginny Chadwick supported the measure, saying it was necessary to keep up Columbia's growth plan. "From a smart growth perspective we want to increase the number of residents who live in that area. We want to make sure we have the capacity to do so," Chadwick said.
The council voted 4-3 in favor of the bill. Plans to update the sewer downtown will begin soon. But the fight over sewer funds highlighted a larger issue. Not only does the city need to continue to expand the sewer system to meet demand, David Sorrell said it also needs to renovate the existing sewer that's now falling apart. "A gravity sewer line should last 80-100 years. We ought to be really planning on having replacement of about seven miles of sewer every year, which we have historically not done. In 40 years, 45 miles of footage had been replaced," Sorrell said.
The city improved a portion last year, updating more than six miles of pipeline. Public works director says it can be daunting because the work seems to never truly be done. "As you fix them, more things go bad. I mean it's just a never ending story," the director said.