Decatur Utilities reports 15 sanitary sewer overflows due to last week's heavy rains

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DECATUR, Ala – Decatur Utilities (DU) is reporting that 15 manholes had wastewater overflows due to last week’s heavy rain.

WHNT News 19 does not know the total number of gallons that overflowed at this time. A review of the utility’s reports to ADEM shows an estimated 675,000 gallons in sewer water spills in December 2019. For all of 2019, the utility reported more than 6 million gallons of sanitary sewer overflows.

City officials want people to know Decatur Utilities is working to fix this problem, but it won’t happen overnight.

“It looks like a water fountain from all the manholes,” said Cesar Soto, Decatur resident. A manhole down the street from his house overflowed over the weekend and during heavy rains in December.

Decatur Utilities warned people to expect sanitary sewer overflows like this before storms began last week.

“Just water gurgling up out of it,” said Donna Smith. She watched a manhole overflow on her street.

Crews put up signs to warn people about 15 different overflows across town. Some of them on neighborhood streets, like 6th Avenue SW and Sumerlane.

Families who live on Summerlane said they saw crews from Decatur Utilities pressure washed the area around the manholes Sunday and removed the sings.

“We certainly don’t want that to happen in the city of Decatur. I’ve been here all my life. I love this city. This is a beautiful city,” said Paige Bibbee, Decatur City Council President.

Bibbee said she stands behind Decatur Utilities’ plan to fix the pipes. In 2013, she said the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM)  approved DU’s plan to address sanitary sewer overflows.

“If Decatur Utilities was not actively pursuing a plan that had been approved by ADEM, I think I’d be more upset, and I’d probably be angry,” Bibbee said. “I’m not angry with them because I think they’re doing what they can consistent with the ADEM regulations.”

Bibbee said there are 350 miles of old pipe that need to be updated.

“350 miles takes a lot of time. If they could put a billion dollars at this problem at once, then you would run into the fact of where do you get the contractors to do that work. And now only that the streets that would be closed, and where they would have to dig would be very, I guess, troublesome for some of the residents to get around on some of the big streets,” Bibbee said.

Decatur Utilities has earmarked more than 2.5 million dollars for replacing old pipes this year. A DU spokesperson said the utility has spent $60 million dollars on reducing overflows over the last 10 years.

“DU saw significant improvement in the reduction of SSOs in three basins where capital improvement projects were concentrated based on recommendations from a previous sewer system engineering study,” said Joe Holmes, Decatur Utilities spokesperson. “Basin 8 (Stratford Road) and Basin 4 (Country Club Road) had no SSOs during the most recent event. Basin 10 (31 South) experienced two SSOs, a significant improvement over historic SSO numbers. Basin 1 (Wastewater Treatment Plant) experienced new SSOs due to changing hydraulics (water flow) and other factors currently under evaluation.”

Mayor Tab Bowling sent WHNT News 19 a statement saying he believes the members of the Decatur Utilities board are experts.

“I expect to meet with Decatur Utilities management and possibly board members this week. I would like to discuss options to expedite efforts to improve our sanitary sewer collection system piping and manholes,” said Mayor Tab Bowing.

Decatur is not the only city in Alabama that is dealing with this problem. The city of Athens had one sewer overflow during the heavy rains last week. And according to ADEM reports, Huntsville observed overflows in 10 different areas across the city.

Bibbee said cities like Mobile and areas of Jefferson County have significant SSO issues.

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