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Duluth News-Tribune
Tuesday, June 11, 2002

City to review sump pump program


With seven years and more than $6 million invested, you're probably a little curious.

Is Duluth's long-running effort to prevent sewer overflows making a difference?

Some critics doubt it. But city officials and others say the program is helping to keep rainwater out of city sewer lines and thus helping reduce the amount of sewage overflows into streets and streams.

They wonder, though, whether the Inflow and Infiltration Program is helping enough.

Those questions should be answered this autumn after a consultant for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District uses computer models to determine how much water and sewage rushes through the city's underground pipes and whether that flow is less than it was before the program started.

WLSSD hopes to start the review sometime this summer. By then, city officials hope to have inspected nearly every home in about a 100-square-block area of Lakeside-Lester Park.

That neighborhood's heavy clay soils and abundance of houses have made it the most likely place in town for overloaded sewer pipes and spewing sewage. It's also where the city has focused its efforts to solve the problem.

"We've been very eager for them to finish a significant area so we can get started with the analysis," said Loren Bergstedt, manager of technical services for Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. "The program is a good one. It's doing the right things. We're happy. But the question is, 'How far does it go? Is it doing enough to get us to where we need to be?' Enough is when we have no more overflows. We're going to have to take a hard look at that."


Like nearly every other community across the nation, Duluth's sewer and water system is aging. Installed around the turn-of-the-last-century, when much of modern America was built, pipes have begun to fail. They're not up to modern standards and often are too narrow to handle waste volumes. Sometimes, tree roots grow into them searching for water and nourishment.

Compounding the problem is that, for various reasons, houses of that era were built with drains around the foundations that diverted rainwater into a sump pit below the basement. The pits were connected directly to the same pipes that carry sewage to the treatment plant.

When it rains or when snow melts, millions of gallons of clean rainwater overwhelm the city's sewage treatment capabilities. Flow into the WLSSD plant can jump from about 40 million gallons daily to as high as 140 million.

The result during heavy rain days is raw sewage spewing out of pump stations and manholes. It flows across streets, into ditches, streams, the St. Louis River and eventually into Lake Superior.

While each spill on its own is not considered a major environmental threat, the cumulative effect is considered a problem. There's also a human health issue anytime people are directly exposed to untreated sewage.

"After years and years and decades of neglect by the city -- by most all cities -- the MPCA finally said, 'We've had enough of this,' " said Ken Hogg, who was chairman of the Citizen Task Force on Inflow and Infiltration before he was elected to the City Council.


The solution is to get rainwater out of the sewage lines and into yards where it can soak into the ground or run into the city's storm water runoff system.

But it took a bit of prodding to get Duluth officials moving.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a threat: Take care of the overflow problem or the city won't be allowed to issue new building permits. In other words, if the city can't keep the sewage it has out of the environment, the state won't let Duluth add to the problem. No new toilets would mean no new homes, no new businesses.

So far, the state has accepted Duluth's efforts in good faith. And rather than fine the city or enact heavy-handed development restrictions, the MPCA has opted to work with the city. State officials say they'd rather see money spent to solve the problem rather than on punitive fines or legal fees.

There have been some direct consequences, though. Residents along the North Shore just out of Duluth are going to have to spend more money to connect to the city's sewage system because they have been forced to build a sewage holding tank in addition to sewage lines. That giant tank will be able hold 48 hours worth of flow so the new sewage volume doesn't add to any overflows in eastern Duluth.

The state and WLSSD continue to negotiate a new state sewage permit for the city, which has been delayed in part because of the overflow problem. The old permit expired last year, though it remains in effect.

Meanwhile, the city continues to chip away at the problem one house at a time. The city announced in April it would spend $1 million this year to inspect 5,000 homes in Lakeside and Lester Park. About 80 percent will need work -- ranging from simple landscaping and gutter work to keep water out of home drains, to expensive and complicated sump-pumping schemes.

Since 1995, the city has spent more than $6.3 million on the problem, mostly paid for through sewage rate increases to homeowners -- 20 percent over the past seven years.

About 3,600 homes have been inspected, with 2,500 needing work. City-hired contractors have installed 2,100 sump pumps or gravity systems to divert water.

Throughout the city, aging sewer lines are being replaced as the city rebuilds roads. Tree roots are removed from pipes and problem areas for roots are identified. Crews return to continue correcting the problem.

The fix has been more gradual than the initial proposal to require all 26,000 sanitary sewer customers to install new sump pumps that are not connected to sanitary sewers. It would have cost nearly all homeowners thousands of dollars each, and the backlash was strong.

So city officials created the citizen task force to help determine the best approach. The seven-member group met half a day a week for about four months. It was intense, said Richard Andree, an engineer in Duluth who took over for Hogg as chairman.

The task force's recommendations led to the city's sump pump program. It is voluntary. The city encourages homeowners -- for now, in Lakeside and Lester Park -- to call for an appointment. Inspectors determine what work is needed, if any.

As much as $12,000 was spent at some homes during the program's infancy. Contractors disconnected drains, installed sump pumps, replaced pipes, put up new gutters and even landscaped during the program's "demonstration period," which has since ended.

Now, work is limited to just what's necessary. And homeowners no longer line up their own bids. The city hires contractors to tackle groups of homes under single contracts, a move that has cut costs. About $2,000 per home is being spent now, according to city figures.

Within about two years, the focus of the program will expand to include homes east of 21st Avenue East. Within about five years it will move to Morgan Park, which suffers its own sewer problems.

The entire city is expected to be inspected, with necessary repairs made, within about two decades. The total cost likely will exceed $27 million.

At least that's the plan if the program continues unchanged. There are rumblings, though, that changes may be needed.


"I had hoped there would be more engineering and testing done at the front end," Andree said. "We thought it would be wise to find out where the biggest flow problems were and take care of those first. But the way it works now, if you live in a certain area and you want a sump pump, you get a sump pump. That, to me, is not a good use of money.

"If you engineered first, you'd find blocks that are real problems and worse than others. Then you could go after those. Wouldn't that make more sense?" Andree asked. "I had hoped by now we'd be through the whole city."

"I think the end (of the program being voluntary) is approaching and I think it's approaching soon," Hogg said. "If more people don't get into it by the end of this year, maybe it won't be voluntary anymore."

In some cases, the city hasn't been able to convince enough people to get involved. The city missed its goal of cooperating homeowners for three years. Without broad cooperation, it's unclear if enough of the problem can be fixed.

City and WLSSD officials think they can convince enough homeowners to participate to solve much of the problem.

"Things have improved a lot," said the sanitary district's Bergstedt. "It's going in the right direction. But will we have to add another component in addition to doing the disconnections and in addition to installing the sump pumps? That's the question we'll need to answer."

The program could be expanded to include replacing or sealing privately owned pipes that connect homes and other buildings to city mains, Berg-stedt said. The move had been suggested in the task force's 1994 recommendations.

"We don't know for sure whether that's the next step. But there's growing concern. We're getting close (to a solution to the overflow problem), but are we going to be close enough?"

There was even talk last year of making the program mandatory. But no changes will be made until the consultants complete their review.

Brown and Caldwell, a national environmental engineering and consulting firm with offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, will be paid $3,000 to $4,000 to do the work. The computer models they'll use are valued at more than $200,000, Bergstedt said.

"We'll need some good rain," he said. "Then they'll be able to speculate and do their computer wizardry."

Analyzing the effectiveness of the program has been difficult. The city has databases filled with numbers of overflows, water volumes, flow rates and other data. But they don't easily indicate trends because the amount of rain Duluth receives is different year to year. So while the sump pump program might be reducing the water that winds up in sewer pipes, the numbers may not reflect it during particularly rainy years.

That happened in 2001 when, in April alone, more than 15 million gallons of sewage and rainwater spilled out, the worst month in the past decade. Officials hope that was a fluke caused by unusual weather and not because the city's efforts aren't working.

"Every year is different. Every rainfall is different," said Patti Maguire, a project coordinator in the city's public works and utilities department. "We believe we're making a difference, though. We're confident the analysis will reach the same conclusion. Of course, if we find out we're not making a difference, I guess we'll have to do something else."

"I believe what it'll show is we've made reductions," said Steve Lipinski, manager of Duluth's Utility Operations Division. "But is it enough of a reduction? That's the big question. That's what we'll find out."

Optimism in the program is fueled by anecdotal evidence. The volume of water passing through pumping stations is down, though hard numbers haven't been crunched. Water volumes are down, too, at the WLSSD plant in Lincoln Park/West End, Bergstedt said.

Overflows, or bypasses, are less frequent. Nowhere is that more evident than near the mouth of the Lester River, where wastewater from Lakeside-Lester Park is pumped west toward the sanitary district.

"The joke was whenever a cloud went overhead we'd have a bypass there," Lipinski said. "Now, we can even have hard rains without having to be called out."

The pumping station at 52nd Avenue East and Dodge Street had 20 to 30 overflows a year before 1995, when the sump pump program was launched, according to sanitary district records. Last year, six or seven overflows occurred at the station. There have been two more this year.

"It happens much, much less often, but it's still too often," Bergstedt said. "We need to be down to one in every 10 or 15 years. We have a ways to go."

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