Decatur has a math problem.

The past two years have been the wettest on record for north Alabama. According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, the valley’s waterways received 66.74 inches of rainfall in 2019, the second-highest total in 130 years behind only 2018’s total of 67.02 inches. Forecasters predict the wet weather will continue for at least the next three months.

The record rainfall has revealed deficiencies in Decatur’s sanitary sewer system.

In one brief period, from Dec. 22 to Jan. 5, Decatur Utilities reported 2.5 million gallons of sewer overflows.

The culprit, according to DU, is rainwater, which is saturating the ground and getting into old, deteriorating clay pipes in the older portions of the city’s sewer system.

The rainwater plus sewage exceeds the pipes’ capacity, leading to overflowing manholes.

“We’ve got a lot of pipe in the ground that’s 60 years old or older,” DU General Manager Ray Hardin said. “I don’t know how we got to a point where we have 60-year-old pipe, but one day when I leave here, I hope we don’t have any pipe that old.”

In the meantime, for every sewer overflow, Decatur Utilities faces a potential fine from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Every overflow is a separate violation of a DU discharge permit, and the fine for each violation can be as high as $25,000.

“We do expect a fine, but we don’t really have an idea yet as to whether that’s $5,000, $50,000 or a half million dollars,” Hardin said.

DU is also being sued by ADEM, the state Attorney General’s Office and the nonprofit Tennessee Riverkeeper group over overflows dating back to 2014.

It doesn’t add up to a pretty picture: Record rain, plus old pipe, plus mounting fines, plus a lawsuit. Worse, it’s a picture everyone can see.

Yet Decatur Utilities has been making progress.

DU has spent $60 million on the sewer system over the past decade, most aimed at correcting sewer overflows.

The frequent sewer overflows triggered an enforcement action by ADEM in 2008, the year Hardin became general manager. The consent order DU reached with ADEM that year expired in 2013, at which point DU developed a 10-year plan for reducing overflows. The first phase of that plan, which concluded last year, focused on lift stations, which are necessary for moving sewage uphill.

DU is limited by what it can borrow and what it can charge ratepayers. It also has to proceed deliberately with replacing clay pipe because it can require digging into streets and diverting traffic.

“We can do (30,000 feet per year) without any rate increases until about the fifth year. In that fifth year there is a possibility we would have a rate increase,” Hardin said. “A lot can happen. That rate increase might need to occur sooner, or it might not have to occur at all.”

Faced with the prospect of higher rates, most DU customers may be content with DU’s current rate of progress, which isn’t fast enough for those residents directly impacted by sewer overflows into their neighborhoods.

It may be that DU needs to adjust its priorities as to which pipe it replaces first. A study that should be complete this spring will hopefully give DU the answers it needs on that score. The study also could suggest other ways to make major progress limiting overflows.

Only with all the variables defined, can DU solve this equation.
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