In the July 25, 2010 edition of The Morning call, a lengthy article discussed the important issue of sewer system overflows into the Little Lehigh Creek. If you read the article, you may be left wondering what all this means. Is it safe for my family to swim or go fishing in the creek? Is my drinking water safe? What about the environmental impact? These are questions that trigger and emotional response of sadness and fear, as we all have a natural connection to our precious water resources.
A few important clarifications are required to help put the media’s coverage of this issue into perspective.
First, it is important to note that the article was focused primarily on incidents when the City of Allentown’s wastewater treatment plant was bypassed, resulting in 33 million gallons of raw sewage being discharged into the Little Lehigh Creek over a 10-year period. The article did not clearly explain that the location of this bypass is at the Kline’s Island Treatment Plant in Allentown, just upstream of the creek’s confluence with the Lehigh River. The photos in the newspaper show residents in the creek upstream of this location, which would not have been affected by these bypass incidents.
However, other incidents have occurred over the years where sewer manholes have overflowed upstream of KITP, including sewer overflows within LCA’s service area. Like the KITP bypasses, these have been isolated incidents that are well documented and reported (i.e. not a secret), occurring exclusively during extreme wet-weather conditions that cause the sewer systems to become overwhelmed with the inflow of rainwater. Immediately following the subsidence of floodwaters that result from these rain events, our systems return to normal operations, which is to say that there is no lasting effect on our sewer systems, nor any continuous or ongoing discharge of raw sewage to the creek.
For example, most of LCA’s municipal signatories are served by our Western Lehigh Interceptor facilities. According to LCA records, the most recent incident involving sewage overflows along the Western Lehigh Interceptor occurred in October 2005, when Tropical Storm Tammy dumped approximately 10 inches of rain on our region within a 2-day period. The severe flash-flooding that occurred during this storm resulted in many areas of the Little Lehigh Creek, and our parallel sewer lines and associated manholes, to go “under water.” In effect, the creek banks were so severely flooded during this tropical storm that our manholes were overwhelmed with creek water and rain water, resulting in some mixing of highly diluted sewage into the floodwaters. And as soon as the floodwaters receded, the overflows also ceased.
LCA conducted follow-up inspections over the next several days, finding no lasting effects on our sewer system facilities, the surrounding rights of way, or the creek. These inspections, and all the subsequent inspection and rehabilitation work LCA has completed since this time, help us to verify that there is no ongoing flow of raw sewage into the environment at this location.
Another area of concern is in the Little Lehigh Parkway, where LCA and other municipalites have facilities that come together to join with Allentown’s system. Here again, overflows have been experienced in some isolated cases when extreme wet weather has caused region-wide flooding, resulting in excessive rainwater inflow into our sewer systems. Keep in mind that these sewer systems are not designed to handle “storm water.” The rainwater enters the sewer system typically through a combination of high groundwater levels and the flow of clear water from unauthorized connections such as sump pumps, floor drains and improperly maintained manholes.
What’s next? Communities in Western Lehigh County are actively pursuing the investigation and rehabilitation of sewer systems to eliminate such overflows. The Sewer Capacity Assurance and Rehabilitiation Plan (SCARP) was adopted by LCA and the municipalities we serve in 2009, and we are now working on plans and programs to address high-priority areas identified through the flow-monitoring work conducted over the past three years. Of particular note is the issue of removing rainwater inflow from unauthorized connections such as sump pumps and floor drains. This is one of the major contributors of rainwater into the system that causes the overflows discussed by The Morning Call. The community must work together to determine the best way to identify and eliminate such sources of rainwater from the system if eliminating the overflows is truly a goal the community embraces.
Food for Thought: The sole purpose of public sewer systems is to protect our environment through proper treatment of waste. While we certainly would like to eliminate all sewer system overflows, and we are working collectively as a region toward that goal, we believe the overflow incidents that have occurred to date pose far less risk to environmental health and safety than the situation that would exist if we had no centralized sewer collection and treatment system in place. Take a look at other areas of the world (and even some areas in the Lehigh Valley!) where leaking septic systems have caused tremendous environmental damage and pose great risks to human health. It was not too long ago (40 years or so) that the Lehigh Valley region looked at this issue and realized the need to regionalize sewer service in order to protect local waterways. The investment has been costly and will continue to challenge our communities as repairs are needed, but the overall improvement in local utility services and environmental protection cannot be underestimated.