Reality Check: Brevard works to stop its sewers from overflowing

When it would rain too much, sewage would come out of sewers in Brevard. (Photo credit:: WLOS)

This year, almost 80,000 gallons of untreated sewage have reached Brevard's creeks, and potentially the French Broad River, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. However, city leaders are optimistic about the progress they've made in stopping sewage overflows.

The city has spent about $20 million to prevent untreated sewage from spilling out of manholes. It's a problem the city has dealt with for years. While there is more to do, DEQ said the frequency of overflows has decreased significantly.

The problem

When it would rain, Brevard's sewage system would take in more water than it could handle, and the excess would come out of manholes.

"It's untreated sewage, but it is mainly rain water," said David Lutz, Brevard's public works director.

When that happens, it's called a sanitary sewer overflow, or SSO.

Since 2010, Brevard has had 125 SSOs.

DEQ required testing in late 2015. Since Oct. 28, 2015, DEQ said tests after SSOs have not indicated an impact to water quality in the French Broad River.

"Go back five years and see what number was," Lutz said. "You'd be appalled. I was. We've seen it discharge for days before we got into this fully of, 'OK, we're going to stop this.'"

In 2013, Brevard had 25 SSOs, overflowing 2.8 million gallons. Since 2010, SSOs in Brevard gushed out about 13.8 million gallons.

Since 2010, Buncombe County's sewage system spilled out 6.5 million gallons. However, Brevard has averaged about 30 more inches of rain a year than Asheville since 2000.

"We're very sensitive towards the environment, because we don't like it. We don't want it. We're not proud of it at all. I mean, it's the most depressing thing to know is what you've discharged. Absolutely, but then we're right back out there looking for it. Where did it get in? How did it get in," Lutz said.

Taking action

Lutz said the sewage system, which was built in the early 1900s, was designed so that when it became overloaded, a bypass would direct the sewage to creeks. Lutz said the Clean Water Act forbid that practice. That's when the SSOs started to become a problem. Since 2012, Brevard has paid the state about $75,000 in fines. Threats of more fines helped prompt city leaders to act.

"One time, I was threatened with a $25,000 fine, and I was thinking how much would it cost, maybe $15 million, $25 million. Twenty-five-thousand isn't too bad until I realized they were talking about per day. Twenty-five-thousand a day! Then, I realized, hey, as a fiduciary, and a responsible elected leader, we had to make sure that we took all the corrective action necessary. The corrective action necessary was to put a new line to replace one that had been underground for over 50 years," Brevard Mayor Jimmy Harris said.

Harris said the plans took years to develop. City Manager Jim Fatland said the city has invested about $20 million to fix issues.

"That's what makes the council and the mayor and the citizens most proud of, that we did not ignore a serious problem. We've actually put money behind the efforts to improve our environment," Fatland said.

The biggest trouble spot was a pump station along Neely Road.

"What comes down commodes, comes out in the yard," said a resident, who lived near there in 2015.

A new pump station has stopped the problem there.

"We're very happy about that," said Jean Woods, who lives across from the pump station.

What's next?

Lutz said the pump station at Gallimore Road remains a problem.

"We still need to figure out why that pump station isn't doing quite what it needs to," he said.

Lutz vowed the city would figure out a solution.

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