In early February, an electrical short led a South Austin wastewater lift station to spill 90,140 gallons of raw sewage into a small waterway.
Austin Water Utility workers hustled successfully to contain the spill at the Southland Oaks lift station, near Brodie Lane and Frate Barker Road, before it reached the larger Bear Creek.
Several years after Austin completed a federally mandated overhaul of its sewer system, spills like that one occur far less often than they did a decade ago, according to data collected by the American-Statesman through open records requests. And, with faster response times by city crews, they’re likely to do far less damage.
In 2001, utility workers responded to news of a sewage spill within an hour only 55 percent of the time. Last year, they responded within an hour 86 percent of the time and, so far this year, 89 percent of the time.
The impetus for the improved response to sewage spills stemmed from a 1999 order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Austin upgrade its aging system or face fines as high as $30,000 a day.
At the time, much of Austin’s sewage pipes were built of concrete or clay, some of them 75 years old, said Steve Schrader, manager of the utility’s collection system engineering division.
In 2001, in response to the federal order, the city created the Clean Water Program to eliminate sewer overflows.
The $400 million program involved 100 separate projects in 70 neighborhoods. The project, which was paid for by raising the city’s wastewater rates by about 15 percent, replaced or repaired nearly 200 miles of pipe; eliminated 10 sewage lift stations; rerouted miles of sewer pipes away from streams; restored stream banks; required roughly 10,000 homeowners to fix private, defective sewer lines on their private property; and improved response time to calls about sewer emergencies.
A majority of creeks downstream of the projects showed improvements for ammonia, an indicator of human sewage, according to data from the city’s Watershed Protection Department.
Spills still happen, of course. There have been at least three this year, as grease blockages, tree roots, vandalism, debris buildup and floods continue to wreak havoc on the many miles of pipes.
This year alone, at least 150,000 gallons of sewage have overflowed.
Austin Water on average spends $1,229 to respond to, mitigate and clean up a sewage overflow.
But it can cost more. In 2010, Austin officials offered a $7,500 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals involved in the vandalism of a wastewater line that led to a spill of 250,000 gallons in Southwest Austin and the closure of Barton Springs Pool. No one was arrested in the case.
“Getting the reward together showed how seriously the city took this,” Austin Water spokesman Jason Hill said.
City officials said it cost $70,000 to clean up sewage involved in the spill, including pay for contractors, work hours for city crews, equipment and water quality testing.
Still, that’s a far cry from incidents like the one in 2002, when a broken pipe led to about 10.5 million gallons of sewage overflowing. Eight million gallons were recovered.
The EPA order against Austin was closed in 2009 because the city met all the requirements in the order.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has taken on more sewage pollution oversight over the last decade or so, rarely issues orders that require a municipality to rehabilitate its entire collection system, said spokesman Terry Clawson. More commonly, the state agency encourages cities with chronic sewage problems to join a voluntary sewage system rehabilitation program. Currently, there are about 175 entities in the program.
Last year, the EPA began negotiations with Corpus Christi ahead of a possible order that it undergo a massive, costly sewer system overhaul.
Racquel Douglas, an environmental engineer with the EPA’s Dallas regional office, said Austin has done “an awesome job of getting its system into compliance.”
She said the EPA now asks Austin to share its experience with other cities attempting to comply.
An uphill battle
Lift-station overflows continue even as pipes stay stable. Some of the sewage overflows in the past several years are due chiefly to one-time events at some of the city’s roughly 120 lift-stations, which are often needed to move sewage uphill.
In June 2012, for example, the Springfield lift station in Southeast Austin foundered after a buildup of grease fouled pump controls. Just over a million gallons of sewage overflowed. A tropical storm in September2010 dumped so much rainwater into city drains that three wastewater lift-stations were overwhelmed with flooding, leading to more than 430,000 gallons of sewage overflows.
The lift-stations “are mechanical in nature,” said Jason Hill, a spokesman for Austin Water Utility. “So there’s a greater potential for failing.”