Midtown Neighborhoods Have Joined Forces to Investigate Sewer Problems

By Susan Roakes and June Hurt

CYCA has joined forces with VECA, Evergreen, Central Gardens, and Hein Park to investigate sanitary sewer problems in Midtown.  An increasing number of residents have reported that clear water and sewage have backed up in their basements through the sanitary sewer drain during heavy rainstorms, which is a sign of system cross-contamination, which so far, the city has denied has occurred.

The City of Memphis has two public drainage systems. One system drains the sanitary sewer lines, which carry wastewater from sinks, toilets, washers, etc. The other system drains stormwater or rainwater.

Sanitary Sewer lines go to the treatment facilities for the wastewater to be cleaned before it is released back into the waterways.  For Memphis that is the Mississippi River.

Stormwater is the water that is produced when it rains and water runs off the surface of the ground into the storm drains that make up the stormwater system. Creeks, streams and rivers are Mother Nature’s stormwater drainage system. Before the 20th century, most cities in the U.S. used the creeks, streams, and rivers as their stormwater and wastewater systems. As early as the 1880s, Memphis separated it’s wastewater from its stormwater. Unlike most cities, Memphis built separate systems to carry wastewater and stormwater.  Most cities in the U.S. built combined wastewater and stormwater systems, which means they clean both stormwater and wastewater.

While Memphis’ separate wastewater and stormwater systems mean that we spend less on treatment than other cities, the sanitary sewer and stormwater systems in midtown Memphis are eighty to 100 years old.  There is evidence that stormwater and wastewater from these two systems are mixing, which is sometimes called cross contamination. This mixing occurs as a result of breaks in the lines of both systems.  Entry of stormwater into the sanitary sewer system overloads this system.  This overload is why basements are backing up through sanitary drains during heavy rains. Wastewater backing up through basement drains is a violation of the Federal Clean Water act and a reportable event. If you have experienced one of these events at your property, report it to the City of Memphis Public Works by calling 901-576-6742 or emailing to pubworks@memphistn.gov.

The City of Memphis tracked these events up until 1996. The current Memphis NPDES permit does not require the City to report these backups to Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC).  The EPA had told the City of Memphis to change this condition for the permit renewal process. Cooper-Young, along with other midtown neighborhoods, plans to comment on this permitting process and needs to hear from residents.

The City of Memphis has ignored requests to look into this problem and have indicated that they do not have information about these backups.  If you have had wastewater backup in your basement or crawl space, please take our online survey. It should less than 5 minutes to complete.

The CYCA and the other neighborhoods intend to share this information with national and state agencies that regulate the storm system.

A public meeting to discuss wastewater backup and stormwater flooding will be held for on Thursday, August 26, 6-8 pm at Evergreen Presbyterian Church, 613 University Street.

We keep hearing stories of how people have spent a lot of money trying to fix this problem on their own.  We need to work together to resolve this problem, and make the city take responsibility for failing to maintain these important systems. Please go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/9JRSCYJ and complete the survey. Thank you!

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