With untreated sewage flowing into streams and the Rivanna River during heavy rainfalls, local water authorities now face pressure from the state to finish plans designed to prevent the problem.
The state Department of Environmental Quality filed consent orders against the city of Charlottesville, the Albemarle County Service Authority and the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority late last month, requiring the entities to complete local projects planned for alleviating the seepage problems.
Several projects are already in the works and the various entities have plans to spend millions in system upgrades.
Untreated wastewater has long seeped into local waterways during heavy precipitation, according to officials. Local wastewater management entities have worked several years to improve the undersized, old infrastructure that transports and stores wastewater, but now the DEQ is stepping in to make sure the work gets done.
“It’s like flushing your toilet into the river,” said Gary O’Connell, executive director of the ACSA. “It’s just unhealthy.”
“When we have really heavy rains ... our systems can’t handle it and the treatment plant can’t handle it,” O’Connell said, “and overflow wastewater gets into the Rivanna River.”
Steve Hetrick, a senior enforcement specialist with the DEQ, said leaking wastewater collection systems are not unique to Charlottesville.
“A collection system is supposed to be water tight ... and no extraneous rainwater or that type of thing is supposed to get into the system,” Hetrick said. “But all these old systems, both of which are in Charlottesville, as well as just about every [other locality], have leaking collection systems. And when they get so bad that they start leaking a lot of rainwater or groundwater into the systems, then you have problems at the treatment plants.”
Local drinking water has not been damaged, officials said during recent interviews.
However, untreated wastewater making its way into local waterways is a serious problem — one that could pose threats to aquatic wildlife and people who come in contact with the polluted water.
There is not a consensus among local officials about whether the seepage has affected communities that get drinking water from the Chesapeake Bay. Charlottesville and Albemarle public water users do not get their water from the bay.
“I’m sure it affects aquatic life in the rivers. Ultimately, it could affect people downstream,” O’Connell said. “The water’s ultimately going to flow into the James [River], and the James ultimately flows to the Chesapeake Bay. And there are different cities along the way that are pulling water for their communities’ water supply.”
Thomas L. Frederick Jr., executive director of the RWSA, said improving the infrastructure has been one of his primary missions since taking the chief position at the authority in 2004.
“We immediately started working on that as a priority as soon as I had identified it,” Frederick said. “Obviously, to do something like this, it’s a multi-step process. It’s not something that you can snap your fingers and it goes away.”
“There was a substantial amount of time involved in just collecting data, so we could identify the magnitude of the problem,” Frederick said, “so that we don’t just go out there and throw a pipe into the ground and hope it works.”
“We basically need to know how big a pipe, and that means you need to characterize what the issue is. Once we did that, we had an engineer develop a computer model,” Frederick said, explaining that advanced technology has been used to identify infrastructure needs.
Frederick said he’s been focused on creating a system that has long-term sustainability, adding that when it comes to installing pipes, “you want those pipes to be able to last a hundred years.”
Officials most familiar with the problems, including Hetrick, say the Charlottesville and Albemarle wastewater management entities have been working proactively to address the seepage problems.
According to one of the consent orders from the DEQ, department officials met in April 2010 with representatives of the ACSA, RWSA and Charlottesville to discuss “unpermitted discharges, the capacity and collection system restrictions that led to the discharges and the necessary corrective actions undertaken and planned for the future.”
“All the projects that we put forward are ones that we know we can do, and we’re going to stick to the timelines. And our board’s committed to the funding to do them,” O’Connell said. “These are projects that we absolutely have to get done.”
Frederick said work is already under way to replace the Meadowcreek Interceptor with a larger pipe and expand the Moores Creek Pump Station, which feeds wastewater into the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The Rivanna Pump Station is also scheduled for tens of millions of dollars in upgrades.
Most of the leaking pipes are in Charlottesville, where much of the infrastructure is older than in the urban ring of the county.
Charlottesville customers’ rates are on the rise, with ratepayers hit with increases of 2.08 percent for water this fiscal year and 3.96 percent for wastewater. The rates are projected to continue to rise at least through fiscal 2015, to cover sewer system and water supply needs.
Last week, the Albemarle County Service Authority voted to keep monthly water and sewer rates unchanged next fiscal year for customers, the second consecutive year the rates will have been kept steady. However, fees charged to developers for connections are scheduled to increase.
All of the projects are scheduled to be completed no later than 2013, with some project deadlines as early as this year.
Hetrick declined to comment on what, if any, consequences the local entities would face if they fail to meet the deadlines.