S#&t Storm

Phoenix's sewer crisis has gone unnoticed by most toilet users, but it's the talk of sewage experts nationwide

In a paper presented last year to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Paul Kinshella, a city wastewater engineer, and Ronald L. Ablin, a consulting engineer who helped assess the condition of the city's concrete pipes, wrote that all of the city's concrete pipe would be fixed over the next three years at a cost of $140 million. The city has already spent more than $150 million, but won't replace all of the suspect pipe. About five miles deemed good enough for at least five more years will remain in the ground. Once again, the city will monitor, gambling that the pipes won't crumble before they can be repaired.

Meanwhile, there are more critical emergencies elsewhere. And those crises can't wait.


Fixing just a tiny fraction of a sewer system costs tens of millions of dollars. Water officials boast that Phoenix has among the lowest sewer rates in the nation, but that's not necessarily a good thing, because city officials also admit they're short on money.

"Unfortunately, current estimates of wastewater revenues are not sufficient to meet all these expanded needs," reads a water-department report delivered to the City Council in December. "Less critical system rehabilitation and preventative maintenance projects will have to be delayed in order to address critical rehabilitation needs. This may create higher maintenance costs in the future; generate increased odor and service complaints; and risk system failures in some areas, which may be subject to regulatory enforcement."

Translation: The city doesn't have the money to fix its sewers, it doesn't have the political will to hike sewer rates enough to get the money, and policymakers are willing to risk spills and the wrath of environmental regulators while the system deteriorates.

You don't have to be an engineer to realize that the city's sewer pipes are showing their age. Pictures tell the story.

Cameras sent through the city's pipes during the past few years show dozens of lines with holes, cracks and other serious problems. Surveyors found at least four segments of pipe had disappeared entirely. More than 13 miles of pipe needed to be fixed or replaced due to structural defects, and these lines were made of clay, not concrete. Based on age alone, an additional 63 miles of pipe installed before 1960 was tagged for replacement by URS Corporation, a consulting firm hired by the city to assess the condition of the sewer system.

In the space of one year, the need for critical repairs has shot the sewer department's five-year capital budget from $527.4 million to $660.6 million. Over the next five years, the city will spend 45 percent of that money on repairs and rehabilitation, three times the amount earmarked for expanding the sprawling system.

The news got even worse in March, when the sewer department banned new access to lines after URS reported that 30 miles of pipe were either above capacity or had reached critically high levels. Some of the numbers were astronomical: Using a computer model, the consultant found one eight-inch diameter pipe was being pushed to nearly 1,600 percent of its capacity. After a field inspection, the mileage of over-capacity pipe was cut in half, which was expensive enough. The City Council has approved $63 million for immediate repairs.

When lines reach their limits, raw sewage either backs up until it reaches less-constrained pipes, or it rises into manhole shafts, or, in the worst-case scenario, it overflows into streets, yards or buildings via toilets, sinks and shower drains.

"We cannot wait six months to a year to fix these sewers," says Carlos Padilla, assistant director of the Water Services Department. "Right now, we have an issue." The danger is very real -- and extremely unpleasant, not to mention a health hazard. "There is a risk that sewage overflows could occur in these areas," says Ray Quay, another assistant director. "There aren't any that we know of now. We're doing everything we can to keep that from happening."

Developers aren't worried. They can get around the ban on new connections by installing temporary septic tanks or putting in bigger pipes themselves, with the city reimbursing their construction costs.

"Everybody's been working together very nicely," says Jason Franz, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

If anything, the URS report understates Phoenix's costly sewer crisis.

For one thing, the study doesn't take into account the effect of future growth on existing pipes -- another report due this summer will identify which pipes will have to be upgraded to handle sewage generated by new development. The city also doesn't know the impact of rainwater on the system, an effect that can be huge, even in the desert.

A cursory check by URS, which monitored sewage flows in a fraction of the city on two rainy days, found that rainwater can increase the amount of liquid in some parts of the system nearly tenfold. "That's unusual -- that's very high," says Ken Greenberg, an EPA environmental engineer based in San Francisco. "The systems we've looked at in the Southwest, the peaking factors are much lower." Even a doubling of volume is cause for concern, Greenberg says. However, he cautions that a full analysis is needed before drawing any conclusions about a sewer system's vulnerability to rain.

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