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Heavy Rains Have NW Communities Scrambling to Contain Sewer Overflows

December 23, 2015

It’s been a difficult couple weeks for the small Southern Oregon community of Glendale.

“The weather hands us unexpected things from time to time, and you just manage it and deal with it in as quick and best a fashion you can,” says Mayor Adam Jones.  

After days of heavy rains in mid-December, the amount of wastewater coming through the city’s treatment plant exceeded capacity. Raw sewage overflowed into Cow Creek, a tributary of the Umpqua River.

Then a few days later a fire broke out at the plant, knocking it offline and causing it to overflow again.

“It’s weighing heavy on a lot of people here in the city,” Jones said.

Glendale is not alone in having trouble with its sewage treatment system. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said since Dec. 1, 2015, more than 60 sanitary sewer overflows have been reported — some spilling thousands of gallons.

“When the sewer system gets overwhelmed, it basically will find a way out.  And the reason that they get so full is that they leak. Water leaks from the outside of the sewer through the cracks in the pipe. It’s mainly groundwater,” said DEQ Engineer Tim McFetridge.

Although the sewage is diluted by this water, it’s still raw sewage containing nasties like E. coli and other bacteria.  Washington issued a warning via social media telling people not to come into contact with standing flood water for this very reason.  

Washington doesn’t yet have overflow data for this month, but over a recent 48-hour period, Seattle alone reported 17 spots where a sewer overflowed near the water.   

“There are sewers in the ground that are literally 70 years old, and the materials that were used then are much different than what we use now,” Mcfetridge said.

He said in Oregon, it’s almost exclusively a west side problem. The state can fine cities and towns whose systems overflow. 

“It’s one of the tools that we can use. We generally do that when we feel that the municipality should have done something that they didn’t do or weren’t prepared to do,” he said.  

Environmental regulators say Glendale will likely not be penalized for their sewage spills. And Mayor Jones said the town of about 900 is in the planning stages of upgrading and increasing capacity of its water treatment system.

Ironically, that fire that knocked Glendale’s treatment plant off-line could ultimately speed this process along.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to incorporate some of the upgrades into the repair. The planning may move into at least a portion of the construction much sooner than anticipated,” Jones said. 

These repairs are costly for communities. But it’s what the DEQ said needs to be done to keep raw sewage where it belongs — even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

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A scene of flooding in Tillamook, Oregon.

Tony Schick/OPB

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