City flushes old sewage ideas
Utility director takes Durango toward state compliance
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald file photo
Those who criticized the city of Durango for being unprepared and negligent in not quickly warning the public about a 300,000-gallon raw-sewage dump in July 2011 might feel validated to know state regulators feel the same way.
The Colorado Water Quality Control Division has ordered the city to come up with an emergency-response plan, a sewer-maintenance program and a training program.
The city had no such formalized plans in place as late as four months ago, said Steve Salka, the new utilities director.
“The state was leading us in a direction, but I knew we needed an emergency action plan,” he said. “I knew we needed a spill-response plan. I knew we needed a maintenance plan. I just put it all together (and sent it to the state).”
The city has struck a tentative agreement to spend $84,000 on backup generators for its sewer lift stations to bring it into compliance.
Salka, a retired Naval commander responsible for maintaining aircraft carriers, started with the city last summer. He soon found himself in the “new-guy” role of having to state the unpopular and persuade City Council to double the sewer rate for much-needed repairs. He said the old attitude of reacting instead of anticipating crises has been flushed down the toilet.
“We are not the same organization we were in 2011,” Salka said. “We practice for emergencies. We prepare for the worst so that our response times are immediate, so we can minimize any spill.”
Councilor Dick White approves of Salka’s approach.
“I think Steve is thinking systematically about the issues. What are the critical needs? How do we go forward? I am sure the next City Council will be looking at some additional capital-improvement requests down the road,” White said.
“You could argue that clean water and sewage disposal is one of the more important (things local government does), (that) public health trumps public safety,” White said.
A smelly past and ongoing deficiencies
Durango has documented 42 sewage spills since 2005 for a total spill of about 317,000 gallons of sewage, or about half the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They were the result of many types of failure, such as plugged lines from restaurant grease, broken pipes, operator error and power breakdowns, according to city records sent to the state. In addition to the sewage spills, there was a 3.25 million-gallon spill of potable water in January 2010.
The 96-mile-long sewer system dates back to 1916, with the oldest sections underneath Main Avenue and along the Animas River, where pipes are more than 50 years old.
The city regularly dumped raw sewage into the river as late as 1958, when Durango’s first wastewater-treatment plant opened. Durango’s last major capital upgrade of its sewer system was in 1985 with the opening of the current wastewater-treatment plant at Santa Rita Park.
In his eight months on the job, Salka has uncovered many deficiencies within the system. Because there are no meters to monitor the flow of sewage, the city does not know if there’s a spill until somebody actually notices the leak. The gigantic 2011 spill just north of the skate park was first brought to the public’s attention by a kayaker.
Electronic equipment within the wastewater-treatment plant had become corroded because blowers “had not been working in five or six years,” and were not refreshing the putrid air, Salka said.
Besides putting in new blowers, Salka installed a new monitoring system to track the flow of electricity within the plant and to set off alarms in the event of an equipment failure, especially after hours.
“It was a nightmare. We could not remotely monitor any of our equipment.” Salka said. “Before, it was, ‘I think this is how it works. I think if I turn it this way, this is what happens.’ Now when we turn a switch, we know exactly what’s going to happen.”
The equipment at the city’s 17 lift stations, which carry the sewage to the wastewater-treatment plant, are not standardized, so parts cannot be easily replaced or exchanged.
Salka wants a uniform system. He is making new development follow city code.
“Mercury Village has to pay for (its lift station),” he said. “We are making them come up to our standards now. It must provide a generator, a vault, so if the wet well overflows, it goes into the vault so we’re not spilling sewage anymore.”
One lurking danger, however, is that the city’s lift stations are backed up by two portable generators, which is not believed to be sufficient in the event of a citywide power failure.
The worry is that Durango could lose all its lights and then get buried in an avalanche of sewage during a blackout.
This threat was brought home a year ago during a planning exercise when officials had to react to a plane crash taking out an electric substation during a blizzard.
“Oh, we have an issue here we need to address,” is how White described the reaction.
As part of a consent order with the Colorado Water Quality Division, the city tentatively agreed to invest $84,000 in backup generators for three of its 17 lift stations. The city also applying for a grant to provide generators for the remainder of the lift-station network.
Steve Gunderson, director of the state’s Quality Water Control Division, called it a “penalty, but the penalty should solve the problem.”
“(The city) may not have wanted to spend that amount of money at this time, but it will be a good thing for water quality and a good thing for Durango,” Gunderson said.
White is relieved that the city is not having to pay an outright fine, which literally be “money down the sewer, instead of putting money into the sewer system.”
The city is saving money to eventually install flow meters along the sewer system to act as alarms for future spills.
“These flow meters are costly, and our goal is to be able to get these in place sometime in 2014, funds allowing,” Salka said.
The priority is to get the backup power system for the lift stations in place.
City officials have not yet signed off on the consent order because the city then be under a six-month deadline to complete the project. So Salka does not want to start the clock ticking until April, when work could begin.
“In the spring is when you will see the most work done,” he said. “Then I can take a deep breath. Everything will be going in the direction we need it go in.”