Aging pipe systems cause overflow of sewage water into Thames River

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Lining bags of sand across the path

Courtesy of Paul Mayne

STAYING DRY, ONE SANDBAG AT A TIME. As a precautionary measure to rising water levels prior to Reading Week, Western’s Physical Plant workers lined the playground area of the Mary J. Wright University Laboratory Preschool — which is located in the basement of Westminster Hall — with sandbags. The water never ended up reaching the building.

The recent weeks of rain and melting snow have caused approximately 77,000 cubic metres of sewage to flow into the Thames River, giving new meaning to the phrase “Up shit creek.”

Last week’s above-seasonal temperatures caused heavy rains and melting snow, which led the City of London’s water treatment system to become backed up and overflow. Other triggers of the flooding are both the make-up of the city’s current water system and homeowners’ personal set-up for dealing with rainwater.

“We have a system that is over 160 years old,” Ron Standish, director of wastewater and treatment with the City of London, said. “There have also been additions and changes to the system at many different times.”

The additions have lead to a variety of different systems working as part of the larger system, Standish said.

A typical wastewater system has two sets of pipes, one for sewage and one for rainwater. This allows for rainwater to flow straight through the system and sewage to be treated before it is allowed to enter the water.

Since the system was expanded at different times, that is not the current set-up in London. There were different standards when each set of pipes was installed, which lead to different set-ups across the system.

Currently, some pipes function both as storm and sewage drains, rather than having two separate pipes. This puts strain on the sewage treatment system during heavy rains as it is filled with rainwater.

While these sections all work well according to the standards they were built at, they are simply not up to today’s standards, Standish said.

A 20-year plan is in place to fix this problem at a cost of $100 million, according to Standish.

“[It will take] huge dollars to 100 per cent solve this,” Paul Hubert, ward eight councillor and chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee for London, added.

The city also offers a sub-pump program to residents and is encouraging homeowners to check their own pipe hook ups and solve any problems that are visible.

Older homes may have both their sewage and storm water hooked into the sewage line, according to Hubert. There is also a new law in place to ensure new homes have their lines connected to the proper pipes.

“What happens [with the current system] is you either have an overflow or it comes up through people’s basements,” Hubert said.

The current flooding has caused negligible environmental damage, Standish said. He added there was a minor risk to human health as one per cent of the river’s water was contaminated.

“[It’s] pretty disgusting,” Melanie Baird, a second-year health sciences student, said when she heard. “[The river] has always looked dirty to me, I didn’t ever want to swim in it.”

While living in Medway-Sydenham Hall last year, Baird nearly had to be moved to another residence due to the river rising above its banks. Prior to Reading Week, Western closed its Medway and Talbot parking lots after water levels rose by 10 inches.

The sewage floods have been occurring since 1995 and have occurred three times in the past year, Standish said.

Hubert added that as storms become more severe and sudden, so does the overflow.

“There is only so much we can control.”

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