During a storm earlier this month, Charlottesville’s largest pump station was damaged, filling with wastewater that later poured into two city parks and a tributary of the Rivanna River.
A $40 million update to the Rivanna Pump Station nearly seven years ago was supposed to prevent that very thing from happening.
“With this upgrade in the wastewater system, sewers will no longer be at risk of overflowing into the Rivanna River during big storm events,” reads the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s description of the 2017 upgrade to the pump station that is posted online.
Jan. 9 was not even an especially big storm.
“We had three inches of rain that day, which is a lot of rain but it’s not excessive,” Bill Mawyer, director of the sewer authority, said at the organization’s Tuesday meeting.
But something went wrong at the pump station and the system overflowed anyway, causing wastewater to flood into Darden Towe and Riverview parks in the city. The authority also said it was forced to discharge 6.2 million gallons of wastewater into nearby Moores Creek over a 26-hour period — a number that does not account for sewage that may have spilled out from manholes which were backed up due to the damaged pump station. And while the area’s drinking water supply went unaffected, residents were urged by the sewer authority to avoid contact with the Rivanna near the flooded parks.
Nearly three weeks later, the sewer authority doesn’t know what caused the flooding. That’s because the pump station itself is still flooded.
Once it is fully drained, crews will be able to enter the facility and identify what went wrong, the authority has promised. But draining the remaining water likely won’t happen any earlier than Feb. 4, and the investigation that follows could take weeks.
Mawyer said a number of things could have happened. Perhaps the issue was an increase of water from the storm. Or maybe a pipe burst. Or the pumps didn’t work as they should have. Or the controls ceased operating correctly. He doesn’t know.
Whatever the case, it’ll take time and money to fix. But how long and how much is also not clear. The sewer authority said it hopes to have the station fully restored by the end of the year. In the meantime, temporary pumps have been installed so that more wastewater does not enter local waterways.
The damaged pump station normally has a capacity of 53 million gallons per day. Roughly 6 million gallons of wastewater from northern Charlottesville and Albemarle County are now being conveyed through the temporary pumping system every day, according to the sewer authority. An initial temporary pumping system with a capacity of roughly 10 million gallons per day has been installed to convey normal wastewater flows around the damaged pumping station, and a secondary temporary pumping system with a capacity of 50 million gallons will be completed over the course of the next several weeks.
The Rivanna Pump Station does not actually clean wastewater. Instead, it serves as a transportation facility. Wastewater enters the station that then pumps it 100 feet uphill to the Moores Creek Advanced Water Resource Recovery Facility that does the cleaning.
The Rivanna station’s pump rooms and the equipment within are meant to stay dry. So when the station overflowed on Jan. 9, its pumps and other mechanical gear ceased functioning, preventing wastewater from reaching the treatment center.
“The issue we had on Jan. 9 is we had some sort of failure, and the dry areas became submerged, and they are to this day submerged,” Mawyer said at Tuesday’s meeting.
In order for crews to enter the facility and install the temporary pumps, Mawyer said there was no other choice but to release millions of gallons of wastewater into Moores Creek.
“We don’t diminish the seriousness of what we had to do, but it is a relative thing,” Mawyer said, adding that the gallons discharged into the creek pales into comparison to the 420 million gallons moving through the Rivanna River and the 4.5 billion moving through the James. “We’re sorry for it, but when the system is overloaded, that’s what happens to your sewer system.”
The sewer authority said it contacted nearby Fluvanna County and Lake Monticello, which are both downstream from the creek. It also alerted the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality of the discharge within 24 hours, as required by law.
“DEQ does not authorize releases of untreated sewage; however, DEQ recognizes that this may be necessary to fix the pumps and has discussed recommendations for additional water quality monitoring during and after the discharge,” department spokeswoman Irina Calos told The Daily Progress via email. “DEQ is continuing to work with RWSA to identify the cause of the equipment failure at the facility and take steps to avoid recurrence of this failure.”
Calos said that because temperatures were low at the time of the flooding, the agency does not expect significant environmental impacts.
“Colder temperatures result in higher dissolved oxygen levels and less microbial activity in the water,” Calos said.
Charlottesville city councilor Brian Pinkston sits on the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s board of directors.
“Wow,” Pinkston said at Tuesday’s meeting after learning the pump station was updated in 2017. “So this is not very old.”
Indeed, it’s not.
Dede Smith served on Charlottesville City Council from 2011 to 2016 and remembers the station’s update being controversial.
“One of the biggest issues is the pump station is five or six years old, and it was a very expensive model,” Smith told The Daily Progress.
The update allowed a larger pipe to be installed at the facility, increasing the station’s capacity from 37 gallons per day to 53. More capacity, at least in theory, should have reduced the likelihood that a storm could overwhelm the system.
Part of the reason for the $40 million price tag was a decision to put the pipe through a hill. That required a boring machine to excavate a tunnel. Smith recalls that decision costing an additional $11 million.
“It was pretty controversial, and even more later on when we had to come up with cost sharing between city and county,” Smith said, adding that mediators were brought in to help the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County determine who would pay for what.
“That’s all to say, this very expensive, pretty controversial project has now failed after five years,” she said. “It’s just an interesting question as to why.”
Smith said that 3 inches of rain is not much compared to historical averages.
After making the large investment not that long ago, Charlottesville and Albemarle may be back on the hook for another large bill, assuming insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of repairs. That remains to be seen, as it could take several weeks before the authority even identifies what went wrong, how it can be fixed and what that fix will cost taxpayers.
With more money likely to be spent, localities in the region that rely on the pump station will want some assurance that they won’t be met with another day like Jan. 9 in a few years’ time.
“If you can’t adequately clean your sewage, you’ve got a big problem,” Smith said.