New data shows 750,000+ gallons of sewer spills in our rivers

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A new report collected by the Congaree Riverkeeper shows there is more than 750,000 gallons worth of sewer spills present in our rivers and creeks, which is actually at a record low.

The annual report tracks where they happen, the volumes, and causes, which is then reported to DHEC. Prior years had spilled in the millions.

However, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler tells us the number is still not where he wants it to be.

"Sewage, when it enters waterways, can be a real public health concern," Stangler said. "It can make people sick, exposure to harmful bacteria that is in sewage can give people stomach bugs, it can give people rashes, infections, things like that."

This year's report shows the lowest total volume we've seen in five years, but over 750,000 gallons of sewer spills still remain in our rivers and creeks today.

"There's a couple of pieces to it, 2015 up to 2016, we had the 2015 floods that caused a lot of spills, millions of gallons of sewage spilled that year," Stangler said. "We're still dealing with some of those problems in 2016 as well so part of that is the flood impacts, but another big piece is that the City of Columbia, whose responsible for almost 90 percent of the volume of the spills, they are the largest sewer provider in the state."

Our rivers have a direct line to Columbia water, affecting the water we drink.

"Crane Creek is right just up stream," Stangler said. "So those sewer spills are coming in and they're going to the canal and it means that our drinking water providers have to treat to a higher level to overcome that extra bacteria and those extra pollutants in the water."

Columbia Water has been working with innovative technology to help solve and respond to sewer spills.

One example is called the SL-RAT test.

The test is used by Columbia water which bounces sound waves between manholes to determine if there is a blockage in a pipe.

The test is run between two manholes and starts with a transmitter at one to a receiver at the other where musical pitches are played. The higher the pitch, the more garbage, and blockage are in the manholes.".

The goal is for the test to come out with a deeper pitch, meaning less sewage blockage.

"With this product, we can do thousands of feet with two people a day, you know, to rapidly assess our system," Joey Jaco, Director of Utilities with Columbia Water said.

Stangler warns, however, that the data isn't all-encompassing.

"This is just a sanitary overflow database that we use," Stangler said. "This doesn't capture every problem. This doesn't capture other types of spills, chemical spills, oil spills, things like that. This doesn't capture plant upsets where some of these sewer plants may have violations that they discharge, it doesn't necessarily capture that, but it does capture one of biggest problems in our areas which is sewage coming out of the collection systems before it can be treated."

The faster officials, like Jaco, can test the water, the faster they can respond to sewer blockage.

"Any sewer spill that reaches a body of water obviously affects the environment," Jaco said. "Our goal is to reduce or eliminate, to help reduce deterrent to the environment".

The number one cause of sewer spills nationwide is grease blockages in pipes, according to Stangler. He says to never pour grease down drains.

Ken Jones, the Aquafun boat rental tours owner, says sewer spills could affect his business tremendously.

"Some people are already [saying] they don't want to get in the lake. They say 'it's dirty, it's nasty,'" Jones said.

Stangler says though this number is still not where he wants it to be, he's been putting out this report for five years and says it's a good step in the right direction. "It's a good milestone, getting a lot of work to do, getting 750,000 gallons is still a whole lot but still it's a big improvement and one we hope to keep building on."

Copyright 2018 WIS. All rights reserved.