In drastic measure, sewage released into lagoon

Faced after Hurricane Irma with the very real prospect of millions of gallons of waste backing up into the drains and toilets of homes along the barrier islands south of Pineda Causeway, county officials followed emergency protocols and released 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the Indian River Lagoon via a small canal in Indian Harbour Beach.

The release – near 212 Riverside Park Drive from 7 p.m. Sept. 13 to 9:45 a.m. Sept. 25 – was required to free up additional capacity to restart regular wastewater operations for the area south of Pineda Causeway,   said county spokesman Don Walker.

The system was overwhelmed by a combination of an estimated six to eight inches of rain and already saturated ground. Rain intrusion, coupled with power loss on 49 of the 75 lift stations that carry wastewater by pipe along South Patrick Drive and Riverside Drive to the county treatment plant south of Melbourne Beach, pushed the system’s capacity to the breaking point.

Pipes that filled during the power outage, once the pumps were turned on, backed up wastewater into yards, streets and homes. However, the current system’s 24-inch force main along Riverside Drive is sufficiently sized to carry the flow under normal conditions, including “reasonably expected” storms, said county spokesman Don Walker.

“Sewer system design strikes a balance among many competing factors. It is not reasonable to design for the extreme condition,’’ he said.

One resident dealing with sewage backup in her own neighborhood is Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker, who has repeatedly met with county and Indian Harbour Beach officials on the issue.

“They have nowhere to put it. It’s either back it up into people’s houses or pump it out into the lagoon. Eleven million gallons is a lot. They don’t like it any better than we do but right now there’s no solution to that,’’ she said.

Beachside communities are discussing ways to get generators going faster by storing them beachside for use by city personnel and searching for leaks that cause intrusion into the system, she said.

“What was acceptable 10 years ago (discharging into the lagoon) is not acceptable now. People’s standards are changing and we need to come up to that standard,’’ Barker added.

Beachside residents have an infrastructure issue that doesn’t seem to translate to the mainland very well, she said.

“As the highest tax paying residents in the county, this area deserves a little bit better treatment in terms of infrastructure. We need to lessen the amount of times they discharge and the volume of the discharge. Because you can’t ask residents to pay a lagoon tax and at the same time dump sewage into the river on a frequent basis. We just can’t do that,’’ Barker said.

Indian Harbour Beach City Manager Mark Ryan also reported sewage backups through manhole covers and flowing into the stormwater system in the northern section of the city.

He wonders about the long-term environmental impact of the emergency wastewater release policy on his city’s canals that lead to the Grand Canal, Banana River and onto the Indian River as part of the lagoon system.

“I think you’re going to see an increase in the amount of muck in the areas where the discharge went into the canals in Indian Harbor Beach,” he said.

Marine Resources Council Executive Director Leesa Souto stressed that the main environmental impact of Hurricane Irma on the barrier islands – which included minor sewage backups at various areas before the pressure was released – was the actual post-storm 11 million gallon wastewater release in Indian Harbour Beach.

“This was not a spill. This was not accidental. This was an intentional discharge. Except for a toxic waste spill, there are few worst types of discharges you could put into the Indian River Lagoon,’’ she said.

The long-term solution should be “to try to resolve this and not just pretend it is just a once-in-a-lifetime situation. It happens a lot. We try to just put it under the radar. The system is old and it was designed for different time. There is a thing in engineering called the 100-year storm event. Those types of 100-year storms are happening every day. It’s become like a decade storm event,” Souto said.

Improvements are no doubt needed and the county – which already is improving lift stations and lining pipes to decrease infiltration – could use all the help beachside cities and others can muster, Walker said.

“We greatly appreciate this offer and are looking at this partnership as well as other options … that can help us not only address any future power outages and how to keep our lift stations operation, but are also looking – with the city’s help – at potential options such as an expanded plant, retention ponds or even storage takes that can help us in the event of future discharges,’’ he said.

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