Tuesday, June 11, 2002
City to review sump pump program
BY CHUCK FREDERICK
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
DULUTH'S INFLOW AND INFILTRATION 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
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
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."
AGING SEWER LINES
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
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
"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.
PLAN OF ATTACK
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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."