Louisville’s sewer system was never designed to handle the deluge of rain that flooded the city in February and that won’t change any time soon, even after the city spends nearly a billion dollars on improvements.
Across Jefferson County, several days of heavy rain overwhelmed the sewer system in late February. In the older parts of the city — where the wastewater and stormwater flows through the same channels — about 4 billion gallons of stormwater and raw sewage went straight into the Ohio River and Beargrass Creek.
Those overflows were technically allowed. But, MSD reported at least another 122 unpermitted sewer overflows during the same time period, in what’s called the sanitary sewer system, according to a WFPL analysis of state records.
The unpermitted flows included more than 38 million gallons of sewage and stormwater that overflowed into Louisville neighborhoods, near playgrounds, an assisted living center and a hospital.
MSD Chief of Operations Brian Bingham said the stormwater entered and overwhelmed the sanitary sewer system through old pipes and illegal sump pumps, which remove water from basements.
“One, there can be defects in the lines so there could be cracks or small holes that have occurred. The other way and the most common way in our community is that people have illicitly connected sump pumps,” Bingham said.
After an overflow, MSD crews place warning signs for people to avoid the area. Under certain conditions, they’ll also spread lime to help kill bacteria that can cause infection. In most cases, the harmful bacteria carried in sewage water subsides after two or three days.
MSD’s cleanup protocol is required under a federal consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency. The mandate is designed to address overflows from the combined sewer and the sanitary sewer systems by 2024.
The city’s plan includes raising sewer rates to pay for $850 million to address the overflows, according to MSD. Over the past 10 years, MSD has already spent more than $400 million on improvements.
Improvements like the new underground storage basin on Charbdin Place in Riverwood, a sixth-class city in East Louisville, near Blankenbaker Lane.
The basin was designed to prevent flooding in the area, but was never meant to handle a large storm like the one that happened in late February.
Video footage from residents who live on Charbdin Place showed sewage and stormwater flooding the road and yards. Much of it also ended up spilling into the nearby Muddy Fork of Beargrass Creek.
“Yea, see the water gushed up out of here for about a foot and a half,” said Lawrence Boram, a former of mayor of Riverwood. “You can still see all the remnants of the toilet paper.”
Climate experts say Louisville’s weather is changing and that the city can expect more variability over the coming decades – more droughts and more large storms.
“We are into it, and we are going to continue to be into a more active pattern over the next few decades, at least much more like the first half of last century,” said James Noel, service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Ohio River Forecast Center.
Because of this, Bingham said even after MSD’s planned improvements are complete, overflows will probably still happen. That’s because the sewers are not designed, and won’t be designed to handle the heavy rain climatologists say is coming.
“No we are not planning on designing for overflows for those larger storm events and the reason is there is no one in the country doing that,” Bingham said. “And as much as we would like to for the environmentalist side of what we’re doing, the practical side is the community has said we want to have the best water quality we can have, for the most reasonable price.”
Still, the idea that the sanitary sewer system could still overflow even after the city spends nearly a billion dollars to fix the system, has left some residents frustrated.
Amber Mills has three children who like to play in the creek that cuts through their 3-acre property in Middletown. Heavy rains often cause the manholes on her property to overflow and spill sewage and stormwater across their yard and into the creek. Her kids have gotten used to it.
“It’s kind of normal to them now. I suppose they’ve grown up here so they know they just have to stay away from that area,” she said.
Mills would like to see the extra money she’s paid toward rate increases go toward stopping all unpermitted overflows.
“It’s just a frustration that you would think that with what I already pay in taxes and what else I pay to MSD that they should keep us safe, not just me, but all of the residents in which they serve,” Mills said.
89.3 WFPL is partnering with Al Dia en America to provide Spanish-language versions of stories. To read this story in Spanish, click here.