SAWS News: SAWS digs deep, physically and financially, to replace sewer lines
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SAWS digs deep, physically and financially, to replace sewer lines

April 25, 2016Between South Presa Street and the San Antonio River, the San Antonio Water System has cut a deep trench in the ground to replace an artery in its sewer system and prevent raw sewage spills.

In 2012, SAWS began working to fix the 40-inch-diameter sewer main that funnels all the sewage from east, central and south San Antonio to SAWS’ Dos Rios wastewater plant on the far South Side. SAWS is nearly finished repairing or replacing 5.7 miles of the line.

From 2013 to 2023, SAWS is set to spend about $1.1 billion on sewer maintenance and repairs, $492.1 million more than it would have spent otherwise, according to SAWS. The goal is to stop spills of sewage that can carry bacteria like E. coli and fecal coliform, along with other contaminants, into waterways.

In 2013, SAWS, the state of Texas and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement requiring SAWS to take action on its sewers. The agreement was part of a wave of stricter enforcement of the Clean Water Act by the EPA, which is trying to rid rivers and streams across the country of urban sewage.

So far, SAWS has met all of its deadlines in the decree, EPA spokeswoman Jennah Durant said Monday.

Sewage spills have cost SAWS in fines, though. Under the consent decree, the utility has to pay $350 per day for spills that do not reach creeks or rivers and $500 per day for those that do.

Since 2014, sewage spills have cost SAWS $167,500 in fines to state and federal regulators, spokeswoman Anne Hayden said.

Sewer repairs were a key part of the water and sewer rate increases that took effect in January. Though much of the publicity around a November City Council vote to raise rates centered on the Vista Ridge pipeline project, much more of the increase will go to sewer repairs, at least in the first few years.

This year, of the $3.90 in bill increases for the average SAWS customer, $1.02 is going to sewer repairs, while 12 cents will go toward Vista Ridge, according to SAWS. In 2017, that ratio changes to $1.10 and 21 cents, respectively.

In an effort to draw attention to the utility’s sewer work, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente and Mayor Ivy Taylor arranged a tour of the repair site Monday where workers were excavating a trench roughly 25 feet deep. Sections of fiberglass pipe lay nearby on the freshly turned dirt.

“A lot of people think of SAWS as just a water supply company,” Puente said. “Just as important is our sewer system.”

SAWS’ sewer territory covers more than 421 square miles and serves 1.3 million people, according to details in the consent decree. It includes 5,160 miles of pipe in which mainly gravity moves sewage in a north-to-south pattern to the utility’s wastewater plants: Dos Rios, Medio Creek and Leon Creek.

“We sit in a boardroom and talk about this stuff, but it’s great to come out and see folks in action,” said Taylor, who also serves on the SAWS board of trustees.

Keeping up with the repairs necessary for an aging sewer system is a constant process, even without the EPA’s involvement. The old concrete line off South Presa dates to the 1950s or 1960s, SAWS vice president of engineering Genoveva Gomez said. SAWS was ready to fix it even without the consent order, she said.

“It was pretty old; it was already time,” she said.

Aging pipes can cause immediate spills when they collapse, and pipes without enough capacity to hold the sewage can sometimes overflow. Oil and grease dumped down sewers can also cause clogs, hence SAWS’ advertising campaign encouraging customers not to “feed the grease monster.”

Some sanitary wipes that are marketed as “flushable” do not break down in sewers and are increasingly clogging the SAWS system. The utility’s staff sometimes jokingly refer to the huge bundles of wipes they pull out of sewers as “La Wipeacabra.”

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