Tropical Storm Cindy Highlights Need for Improved Infrastructure
by Laura Jackson, Program & Grants Coordinator
As the sun has finally begun to make its way out, we reflect upon the issues that followed in the wake of Tropical Storm Cindy a few weeks back. Heavy rainfall covered Mobile and Baldwin Counties from June 20-23 with upwards of eight inches of rain in some areas. With so many days of heavy rain, our area saw some intense flooding. A storm like this can easily overwhelm a city’s sewer system and cause untreated sewage to flow into nearby rivers and streams.
Unfortunately, though, we can’t blame this issue on rain alone. As one of the rainiest cities in the country, we need better infrastructure systems in place to withstand the amount of rainfall we receive each year, and most importantly - protect our health. Keep in mind – June typically is not even the rainiest time of the year in Coastal Alabama. These sewer overflows also happened at the beginning of peak summer season, where locals and tourists flock to area waterways for swimming, fishing, and boating. Jeopardizing our ability to enjoy these natural resources is unacceptable.
The estimated amount of sewage that overflowed from this storm totaled 15.2 million gallons over 50,274 minutes! From this amount, approximately 8.5 million gallons (just over half!) entered Three-Mile Creek, which was once the City’s drinking water supply in the 1950s.
These incidents continue to remind us that without smart infrastructure investments and proper maintenance, we are left with damaged and aging sewer collection systems that chronically pollute our waterways.
Sanitary sewage overflows (SSOs) pose a substantial risk to waterways because they contain residential and industrial wastewater, including untreated human waste, toxic metals, pesticides, petroleum products, and untreated pathogenic bacteria. Contact with pathogenic bacteria can lead to diseases such as E. coli, while metals and petroleum products can contain chemicals linked to brain damage and cancer.
Despite this threat, there is a lack of adequate and consistent public notification of SSOs. Wouldn’t you want to know if a sewage spill occurred in a waterway you regularly use for recreation?
That's why, alongside eight other conservation groups from across the state, we petitioned Alabama’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to write regulations requiring sewage treatment facilities to notify the public when they are exposed to sewage spills and overflows (read the petition here).
We believe that we have a fundamental right to know when raw sewage threatens your safety while swimming, fishing, or paddling. This information can be used to protect yourself and your family from the serious consequences of sewage pollution. You can read more about this campaign by clicking here.
Program Staff and Interns safely patrolled the streets during the storm to document and verify sewer overflows in the area. Staff will continue to patrol the area after storms and research SSOs so that you may stay informed.
To stay updated, be sure to subscribe to our e-mail list and follow our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube). We also have a web tool, the Sewage Spill Explorer, to help better educate citizens on the various threats associated with sewer spills in a visually appealing, user-friendly manner.
But, what else can you do to help improve our sewer issue?
1. Contact your elected officials. Our elected officials should invest in infrastructure projects that are related to sewer and stormwater, not just the infrastructure like roads and buildings that are “easy on the eye”. However, the infrastructure below us is just as important -flooded streets containing harmful and disgusting sewage.
2. Contact the Alabama RESTORE Council. Funds from the Clean Water Act/RESTORE Act, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) funds and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) can also be used for much needed stormwater, wastewater and other infrastructure needs. The Council needs to select projects that support the triple bottom line benefitting the environment, economy, and the community.
What’s the big picture?
Consistent investment and maintenance of sewer collection systems is necessary to decrease the frequency and severity of sewer overflows in Coastal Alabama. This will make us more equipped to withstand storms such as Tropical Storm Cindy and all of the rainy weather we receive throughout the year. Mobile Baykeeper is dedicated to being the advocate for more resources to repair and replace damaged and aging sewer infrastructure. We will continue working with utility providers to identify solutions to these issues and advocate for more resources devoted to improving our aging infrastructure.