It was quite a rain last week that crashed the Apalachicola sewer system Sunday, leaving many homes and businesses without service for a day or more.
“When the vacuum stops working, it stops sucking sewage through the system out to the plant,” said Mayor Kevin Begos. “They literally get flooded. There’s a lot of leaks and it overwhelms the system.
“It doesn’t have enough vacuum, so you have to pump out the vacuum pits,” he said.
Begos said many toilets wouldn’t flush, and in some cases there were sewage backups that caused overflows.
He said that fortunately, these problems aren’t commonplace, but came about because on Sunday 7.85 inches of rain fell, triple the previous record for that day.
“Then another two inches fell Monday morning,” he said. “Since one inch of rain falling on one acre equals 27,154 gallons, and Apalachicola is about two square miles, that suggests that roughly 347,571,200 gallons of rain fell on the city in a little over a single day, not including more in greater Apalachicola.
“Eastpoint crashed too, but ours was worse,” Begos said.
He said the frequent spot flooding that occurs in low-lying areas meant there were manholes covered by six inches of water.
“A manhole is not supposed to be under water, and that’s when low lying systems have trouble,” said the mayor, noting that a vacuum sewer system can malfunction when a massive amount of water saturates the lines, and the ground gets so saturated that flooding ensues.
Begos said the situation was complicated because “the city massively failed to properly fund sewer and stormwater repairs and upgrades over the last 10 years.
“There are broken pipes and leaky manholes that let stormwater into the sewer system, where it shouldn’t be,” he said. “A vacuum sewer system is kind of like a sports car: do regular maintenance and it runs really, really well. Stop fixing things, and it starts to break.”
Because the sewer plant is, in Begos’ view, “near the end of its useful life, and parts of the downtown sewer and stormwater system are really, really old,” the city now must contemplate a replacement, and a way to better address the ongoing problem of saltwater intrusion into a low-lying system.
The mayor said the city has bought a digital mapping software for the water and sewer system, that will enable water and sewer personnel to bring software and tablet to the scene to immediately assess the situation, even in the pouring rain.
“They won’t have to fumble,” he said. “It digitizes the entire system.”
In addition, the proposed budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year has in it about $285,000 earmarked for capital improvements to the sewer system, addressing everything from vacuum stations to the pump-out truck.
Also, the Florida Rural Water Association is about to complete an independent review of everything that needs fixing. “That will let us know how to budget what must be fixed now, and long term,” Begos said. “We’re already writing grants based on the initial results.”
One of those possible grants is to do an engineer study for a new sewer plant, but it is too soon to say whether that is a short-term possibility.
“One option is to build an entirely new sewer plant, with a potential target date of 2024,” Begos said, noting that a new plant could run as much as $10 million or more. “It’s way too early now.”
He said the upcoming report also will address saltwater intrusion, that can wreak havoc on any system that is a mere five feet below street level, adjacent to a river and bay.
“Any cracks in them and they suck in all this,” Begos said.
“We can do a lot better job of maintaining the system,” he said. “hat will help with normal rainfall. But there is not much Apalachicola or any small city can do to prepare for 10-plu inches in little more than a day.”
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Rainfall halts city's aging sewer system