Plunge the handle and your day has officially begun.
As you step into the shower, what you sent down the toilet begins its date with destiny at a treatment plant miles away. The shampoo and soapy water that runs down the bathtub drain is coming along, too, as is the water and grease from the dishes you'll wash after finishing breakfast.
The journey begins in a pipe that's smaller around than a fresh roll of toilet paper. Your leavings travel maybe 50 feet before joining what your neighbors flushed. This pipe beneath the street in front of your house is twice the size of the one under your yard, and big enough to handle halftime from 250 small Super Bowl get-togethers. But 1.4 million of your fellow Phoenicians are starting their day the same way as you, and it isn't long before the eight-inch pipe on your street connects to a ten-inch pipe under a busier street, which connects to bigger pipe under an even busier street until, finally, it all ends up in a 54-inch behemoth, big enough for a 9-year-old to stand inside without ducking his head.
As far as you know, the black water keeps on rolling all the way to the Phoenix wastewater treatment plant on 91st Avenue, the end of the road for sewage from as far away as Mesa. Denizens of Scottsdale, Tempe and Glendale, whose sewage also ends up at the plant, have a stake in this, too.
But the grease from your bacon and eggs doesn't make it. Less than a mile from your sink, it cooled down and latched onto an oleander root that has broken through the pipeline, one more layer of goo on a glob that could eventually stop anything from passing. You never thought you'd see your morning dump again, but your paths cross a few miles from your house, and you don't even know it. Thanks to a pipe ahead that's one-fourth the size it should be, it's gridlocked, just floating there --or perhaps rising ominously toward the surface through a manhole shaft.
There's a certain ebb and flow to everyone's day, and the same is true for sewage. By the time you take your morning coffee break, the subterranean rush hour is over. Everything goes swimmingly as the stuff you don't think twice about makes its way through a system that would reach from here to Chicago and back again if the pipes were laid end-to-end.
The trip grows perilous as the pipes increase in size. Once the pipes reach two feet in diameter, they're likely to be made of concrete. Chances are, that concrete is lined with PVC that has the same flexibility and thickness as linoleum. And there's a good reason it's there.
If waste could, it would cross its fingers upon reaching the unlined concrete pipes beneath Phoenix. These pipes are falling apart. Some have collapsed or been eaten away entirely by corrosive acid. Most of these dilapidated pipes have been repaired, but there are still a lot left in the ground.
If your waste negotiates roots, dodges grease buildups, squeezes through undersized pipes, doesn't spill from corroded lines and makes it to one of the city's two treatment plants, it will join more than 180 million gallons of sewage the city processes each day. That's 68 billion gallons a year.
If it doesn't make it, that's a big problem. And that's what stewards of the Phoenix sewer system are worried about.
Phoenix's sewer pipes are showing their age. A New Times investigation, which included an examination of capital improvement budgets, spill reports and surveys of the city's system, shows:
More than a dozen miles of pipe are at or above capacity, putting citizens at risk of sewage overflows. And Phoenix already has far more overflows than surrounding Valley cities. Exposure to raw sewage can cause breathing problems, infections of the skin, eyes, nose or throat, and gastrointestinal disease. All it takes is a careless touch of an unwashed hand against your face. The hazard zones are huge, consuming several square miles in east, west and north Phoenix (see the city's map at ftp://www.phoenix.gov/pub/payf/
swrzne80.pdf). The capacity crisis has forced a ban on new connections in these areas while the city pays millions to install bigger pipes.
Pipes are starting to crack and collapse, and the deterioration will only increase as the system ages. Unlined concrete pipes are breaking down faster than anyone expected, from the presence of acids that eat concrete. Phoenix's concrete sewer crisis has gone unnoticed by most toilet users, but it's been the talk of the sewage world, with civil engineers from across the country looking to the Valley of the Sun as an object lesson, proof that pipes that were supposed to last at least 50 years won't survive long enough to become our grandchildren's problem.
The city doesn't have enough money to fix everything and still perform preventive maintenance, even with scheduled rate hikes of 50 percent over the next five years. Costs have already skyrocketed. In 2001, the five-year capital improvement budget was $354 million; today, it stands at more than $660 million, with repairs and rehabilitation the single biggest expense.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that U.S. sewer systems need $390 billion in improvements. In Arizona, the American Society of Civil Engineers has set the price tag at $6.2 billion.
The cost of waiting can be high, in terms of both dollars and health. Cities that have delayed repairs are facing multibillion-dollar fixes and big fines from the federal government. Without repairs and adequate maintenance, sewers can overflow, spewing disease-causing pathogens and heavy metals into streets and buildings.
To be sure, Phoenix isn't alone in its sewer woes, and problems elsewhere in the nation are far worse. But Phoenix stands at a crossroads. With more than 4,300 miles of pipe in the ground, ours is one of the largest sewer systems in the nation. If we don't take care of it now, the frayed edges will soon turn into major rips.
So far, the city has taken a calculated risk, triaging repairs and betting that the system won't crumble.
Think about that the next time you flush.
When a survey crew stuck a camera down the sewer pipe alongside an I-17 frontage road near the Durango Curve a few years ago, the experts were stunned. A 30-foot segment of the pipe was nearly gone. At 36 inches in diameter, this pipe was a big one, a critical segment of the system -- pipes that large are capable of handling nearly 30 million gallons of sewage each day, or 857,000 flushes.
Although sewage was still flowing through the void and onward to the treatment plant, a water line above the collapsed pipe was held up only by soil above where the pipe had been. Had that soil broken loose and cascaded downward into space, the resulting sinkhole could easily have been large enough to hold several SUVs, especially if the water line also broke and added to the torrent eroding away the earth.
The city had encountered that danger in January 2001, when an even larger 54-inch pipe two stories below the ground collapsed and created a massive sinkhole beneath a vacant lot near 22nd Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road. The hole quickly grew as sewage gushed from the line that conveyed several million gallons a day, threatening streets, railroad tracks and utility lines. Pumping frantically and working in the wee hours, when sewage flow is lowest, crews shored up the sides of the pit, stopping its expansion and containing the sewage spill to the immediate area.
Ten months later, a city work crew found a hole in a 54-incher at the wastewater treatment plant on 23rd Avenue, dug a little more, and discovered that the entire top of the pipe, concrete more than five inches thick, had corroded away on a 50-foot segment. Tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage -- no one is quite sure how much -- overflowed the repair trench one night after a worker mistakenly allowed it into the pipe. The spill was large enough that the city told the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that a monitoring well should be drilled to make sure pollutants didn't reach groundwater.
Right under the nose of the city's Water Services Department, one of the biggest pipes in the city had dissolved. It shouldn't have been a surprise.
For nearly a decade, the water department had known that more than 40 miles of concrete sewer pipe were melting away. Ranging in diameter from 24 to 90 inches (sewer connections to houses are four inches in diameter), the lines are among the most important segments in Phoenix's sprawling wastewater system, the arteries that carry our toilet flushes on the last part of their journey to a treatment plant. Considered state-of-the-art when they were installed in the 1960s and 1970s, the lines turned into one of the most expensive headaches in the city's underground world.
Concrete, it turns out, is a terrible material for transporting sewage, especially in a city like Phoenix. High temperatures prompt bacteria to produce astonishing amounts of hydrogen sulfide, which turns into sulfuric acid powerful enough to dissolve concrete. Worsening an already bad situation, sewage rushing through the pipes erodes acid-weakened material, causing deep grooves to develop on sidewalls of pipes where wastewater rises and falls each day, depending on when people are eating, taking showers or sleeping. Below the waterline, millions of pebbles bounce along, chipping away the bottom. And sewage became more potent as water reclamation projects siphoned off liquid, leaving solids behind.
The forces of chemistry and physics became clear during 1992 inspections of half the city's concrete sewer pipe. Rather than fix the pipes, the city monitored, lowering cameras into sewers and waiting until 1998 to survey the whole network. The idea was to wait as long as possible before replacing or lining the pipes, a task that would cost well over $100 million. The city was betting that it could detect imminent disaster on a case-by-case basis and fix the deteriorating pipes over time. The stakes were huge, considering many of the pipes crossed freeways and rail lines that could be shut down if the pipes failed.
But the most recent surveys showed corrosion was an exponential equation. Even as the sinkhole on Lower Buckeye opened up, videotapes of the city's lines were showing that pipes that had looked okay five years earlier needed immediate replacement.
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.
Under a state regulation expected to take effect by the end of this year, sewer systems must handle nearly two inches of rain in two hours without overflowing. That's a deluge that can be expected once every ten years, but you wouldn't want a storm like that to hit if your sewers weren't ready. The consultant checked 22 of the city's 104 sub-basins and found 19 where sewage flows at least doubled on days less stormy than the new law's standard. The consultant recommended a thorough analysis of the entire system, which would cost less than $1.3 million, a relative pittance. According to the consultant's report, the city didn't want to do it. "That report is in error," insists Padilla. The city, he says, will have a rain study finished in time for monsoon season.
Rainwater enters the system through manholes that don't fit or illegal connections that divert storm water into the sewers. The city's pipes are also porous. More than 90 percent are made of clay manufactured in three- or four-foot segments, and each joint between segments is a potential weak spot, underscored by old design criteria that allowed as much as 10,000 gallons of sewage to leak each day from a mile of brand-new eight-inch pipe. The pipes got even leakier over time as cracks developed in mortar used to seal the joints. Tree roots penetrate the cracks, making them even bigger, and water rushes in during wet weather.
No material is perfect. Plastic, for instance, is prone to bending, which restricts flow. The city says clay is best. "It lasts over 100 years," Padilla says. Other engineers aren't so sure. While sealing techniques have improved over the past quarter-century, clay is brittle. If there's too much traffic on the street overhead, if the ground settles, clay pipes can break.
Bonneau Dickson, a California civil engineer who testifies as an expert witness in lawsuits involving property damage due to defective sewers, says a century is on the high side. "I think that's probably stretching it," he says. "The manufacturers still put out this propaganda. They point out that clay is virtually indestructible -- there are clay sewers from Roman times that are still in service. But the ground shakes from one thing or another; trucks pass over them on busy streets. The mortar at joints breaks up so that the joints become open."
Greenberg, the EPA engineer, says there's no definitive answer to which material makes the best sewer pipe and how long pipes last. "I've actually looked for research on the subject and have not been able to find any really good studies on it," he says. But the EPA has recommended that 2 percent of a system's pipes be replaced each year, essentially saying that sewer pipes can be expected to last for 50 years. Some pipes in Phoenix have been in the ground since 1912.
Gary Harmon, a state environmental engineer who oversees wastewater permits, says he knows one thing for sure.
"Nothing lasts forever."
As the oldest city in the valley, Phoenix faces more sewer headaches than other towns with newer pipes. Just check the number of sewer overflows.
According to Padilla, Phoenix has had 446 overflows in the past five years (spill reports and claims against the city, however, show more than 500, with more than 203,000 gallons of raw sewage rising to the surface). By comparison, Tempe has recorded just eight overflows during the past five years, none over 1,000 gallons.
Cities outside Arizona are in far worse shape.
In Los Angeles, which averaged more than a spill a day during the past decade, the city last year agreed to spend $2 billion to fix its leaky sewer system after an environmental group and the EPA sued, demanding that the city stop overflows. Under pressure from state and federal environmental regulators, Atlanta is spending $3.2 billion to fix its sewers. Louisville is contemplating a $1 billion fix.
These communities have learned the hard way that low sewer rates aren't necessarily a bargain. In Atlanta, for instance, ratepayers may soon see their sewer bills triple to pay for repairs.
"What cities ought to be doing is setting the sewage fees such that money is being put into reserve accounts for maintaining the system in perpetuity," says Dickson. That, he says, would cost the average U.S. ratepayer about $75 a month.
In Phoenix, homeowners pay $15.97, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
The EPA has bigger problems on its hands than Phoenix. "A few years ago, Phoenix, along with several other cities in Southern California and Arizona, got an information request letter from us," says Greenberg, the EPA engineer. "Based on what we got from them, it seemed like they were not having many spills. So we've not done any further follow-up."
Sewer systems don't fail all at once. Rather, it's death by a thousand cuts. Deferred maintenance and crumbling pipes and overloaded lines eventually add up to a crisis that can no longer be ignored. That's what happened in Los Angeles. In Phoenix, it will take lots of cash to prevent the same thing from happening.
Phoenix plans to increase sewer rates by 50 percent over the next five years and hope for the best. Politicians don't get elected on sewer-improvement platforms, and there isn't much glamour in making the first flush to dedicate a new sewer line.
Mayor Phil Gordon says he's not worried about the city's sewer system. "There's always been ongoing rehabilitation needs," he says. "I'm confident that we will address these issues expeditiously and professionally and get them taken care of."
The mayor says Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, has told him that Phoenix "has the best record in the Valley" when it comes to sewage overflows. Just how Owens might know that is a mystery. When New Times asked to examine ADEQ's files on Phoenix overflows, the department produced dozens of file folders stuffed with treatment-plant permits, test results on sewage effluent discharged to the Salt River, and other documents, with fewer than ten overflow reports thrown haphazardly into the stacks of paperwork. City records show more than 500 overflows.
City Councilwoman Peggy Neely says she was surprised by the capacity crisis that shut down access to lines this spring, but she says the city is being responsible. The water department's warning that the city is risking system failures and higher costs in the future is "a concern." But not worrisome enough to raise rates high enough to take care of everything.
"I think the council has sent a strong message that we're going to do as much as we can, but at the same time, we have to make sure we monitor to know where we are with systems that may have a failure," Neely says. "I think there may have been an attitude in Phoenix that we're not as old as some cities, so maybe we don't have these problems."