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Hold Your Nose, Heavy Rain Brings Sewer Overflow

Manhole in Rothgeb Park
Leoneda Inge

The weather forecast for the Triangle calls for more severe thunderstorms in the coming week, but they likely won’t be as bad as last week, when a downpour from Tropical Storm Andrea flooded streets, caused weak trees to tumble and resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewer water overflowing.

Records show the city of Raleigh experienced one of the largest sewer system overflows because of Andrea. This comes at a time when the capital city is already spending millions of dollars trying to up-grade water and sewer infrastructure.

About half of Raleigh’s population lives in the Crabtree Creek basin.  That means half of the sewer flow travels that way, and when you have a Tropical Storm like Andrea come through, some neighborhoods are bound to see a lot of that sewer over-flow up close.  Just ask Kerri Marchionni who lives on Rothgeb Drive across from Rothgeb Park.

“So we had lakefront property for about a day, that came up close to the back of the house.  But we did not have any kind of water damage inside or nothing got in the basement," said Marchionni.  “It was pretty amazing.  There was a large fish trapped over there," she pointed out.

A catfish that was too big to fit in their bucket.  The sewer spill at this site was about 82,000 gallons. Raleigh’s Public Utilities Director is Carman, who goes by one name.

“If you look at the color of the water in the river, you can see the sediment.  After a big rain event you’re going to get some erosion," said Carman.  "I wouldn’t call it orange, I would call it chocolate milk brown.”

And we won’t talk about the smell.  But I’m told there’s always a hint of manhole perfume in the air.  Carman says sanitary sewer work along the Crabtree basin is a priority.  He says like many municipalities across the state, Raleigh has a lot of history to make up for. 

“If you think about it, a lot of the system was designed before the current design standards went into place. And 50 years ago if it rained really hard and the sewers over-flowed people just said well, we’ll clean up tomorrow and get on with our lives.  Now it’s a violation of law and we’re doing our best to keep things in the pipe," said Carman.

And the law in North Carolina requires sewer spills be reported to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.  DENR’s Water Quality Division says as of late this week, there have been 112 Sanitary Sewer Overflows reported as a result of Tropical Storm Andrea.  About 10 of them were in Raleigh.  But the biggest spill was in the City of Dunn - overflow in the millions of gallons.

DENR recently announced its list of communities receiving funds from the North Carolina Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund.  Raleigh was awarded $8.5 million for Phase II of its wastewater system work in the Crabtree Basin.

Aaron Brower is an administrator in the Capital Improvements Management Division.  He says last week’s sewer spill may have been bad and smelly, but he says it was nothing like a storm just a couple of years ago when almost 500,000 gallons of sewer over-flowed with a similar amount of rainfall.  Brower would like to think recent changes might have helped.

“And what we’re doing there is we’re actually slip-lining a fiberglass pipe inside of that old concrete pipe, and what that does, is the fiberglass actually has a lower friction coefficient so you can actually get more water through a small diameter pipe," said Brower.

And that means less sewer over-flow.  Kerri Marchionni and her dog, Alley, can live with that.

“It’s a great neighborhood so I guess there are small things you kind of tolerate to live in a great neighborhood," said Marchionni.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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