Midtown neighborhoods join forces to investigate sewer problems

By June Hurt and Susan Roakes
The CY Community Association has joined forces with the Vollintine Evergreen Community Association (VECA), as well as the Evergreen, Central Gardens, and Hein Park neighborhoods to investigate sanitary sewer problems in Midtown. An increasing number of residents have reported that clear water and sewage are backing up into their basements through their sanitary sewer drains during heavy rainstorms. This is a sign of system cross-contamination, which so far the city has denied is occurring.
The City of Memphis has two public drainage systems. One system drains the sanitary sewer lines, which carry wastewater from sinks, showers, toilets, and washers. Sanitary Sewer lines go to treatment facilities for the wastewater to be cleaned before it is released back into the Mississippi River. The other system drains storm water, or the excess water that runs off into storm drains when it rains. Creeks, streams, and rivers are Mother Nature’s storm water drainage system. Before the 20th century, most cities in the US used the creeks, streams, and rivers as their storm water and wastewater systems too. But as early as 1880, Memphis built separate systems to carry wastewater and storm water. Meanwhile, most cities in the US built combined wastewater and storm water systems, which means they clean both storm water and wastewater.
While Memphis’ separate wastewater and storm water systems mean that we spend less on treatment than other cities, the sanitary sewer and storm water systems in Midtown are eighty to a hundred years old. There is evidence that storm water and wastewater from these two systems are mixing, which is called cross-contamination. This mixing occurs as a result of breaks in the lines of both systems. Entry of storm water 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 pubworks@
memphistn.gov.
The City of Memphis tracked these cross-contamination events up until 1996. The current National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit does not require the City of Memphis to report these backups to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). This has allowed the City of Memphis to ignore requests to look into this problem. They have also indicated that they do not have information about these backups. The EPA had told the City of Memphis that the current policy of not reporting cross-contamination must change before their permit will be renewed. During this permit renewal process, Cooper-Young, along with other Midtown neighborhoods, need to make their voices heard.
On Thursday, August 26, a public meeting was held to discuss the growing sanitary sewer problems in Midtown. Dwan Gilliam, Memphis Director of Public Works, as well as representatives from related sub-departments, answered questions about the sanitary sewer system, and addressed the causes and solutions to the problems that residents are experiencing. They also explained how our sanitary sewer rates are determined and how the low rates that we have enjoyed for years have created budget shortfalls. The residents of Midtown were able to present the information gathered from online surveys in the form of a work-in-progress map of Midtown, showing clusters of problem areas. The city was very impressed and excited about the survey information and has requested that we share updated maps with them as more data is collected. This was a great step in the right direction, but another meeting with the city is being planned. Stay tuned to cooperyoung.org for more details.
Even if you weren’t able to make it to the meeting, you can still make your voice heard. If you have had wastewater backup in your basement or crawl space or have had other flooding issues, please take our short online survey, which you can access through cooperyoung.org. Many residents have spent a lot of money trying to fix this problem on their own. We need to work together to resolve this problem and hold the City accountable for failing to maintain these important systems. If you or someone you know is unable to take the online survey, please email cyca.june@att.net, and we will get a printed version of the survey to whoever needs one.

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