WINCHESTER — Millions of gallons of stormwater and wastewater have been discharged into local streams over the last two years as insufficient infrastructure has struggled to keep up with rainfall and population growth, state information shows.
The problem, particularly in Winchester, will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to fix, local officials say.
“There’s just too much water,” Brandon Kiracofe, water permits and compliance manager at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Valley Regional Office in Harrisonburg, said about the discharges, which degrade aquatic ecosystems and can sometimes pose risks to human health. “Any introduction of pollutants is a problem.”
Kiracofe said the discharges are typically the result of “infiltration and inflow” of sewer systems. Infiltration refers to old pipes that, having been damaged or cracked in some way, let excess groundwater into the wastewater system. Inflow refers to a surge in water from a heavy rain. Either can overwhelm a lift station, which is a facility where liquid is pumped from one place to another.
Locally, lift stations are used to pump sewage to treatment plants.
When a lift station becomes inundated with water, a discharge can occur. These discharges can last for hours and pump thousands of gallons of diluted sewage onto the ground and into nearby streams.
Heavy rain also can cause sewer lines to back up and spew out of manholes. Reports indicate this happens frequently in the area.
In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) from The Winchester Star, the DEQ provided documents detailing 109 reported discharge events in Winchester and Frederick County between January 2018 and May of this year.
Winchester reported 75 discharges from lift stations and numerous manholes during that period, reports show. Each report can account for discharges occurring in several locations simultaneously.
In Frederick County, there were 33 reported discharge events, including four in Middletown and 15 in Lake Holiday. Fourteen discharges occurred around Stephens City; those discharge reports were made by Frederick Water.
The Lake Holiday water system is owned by Aqua Virginia, a subsidiary of Aqua America, which provides water service to private communities. The towns of Stephens City and Middletown in Frederick County own and maintain their own water systems. Frederick Water operates the water system for the rest of Frederick County. Stephens City recently contracted with a firm to evaluate its sewer system so improvements can be made.
In Clarke County, there were three discharges, all in the town of Berryville, according to reports.
Local streams or bodies of water directly affected by discharges include Abrams Creek, Opequon Creek, Buffalo Lick Run, Hogue Run, Molly Brook Run, Meadow Brook, Wright’s Run, Town Run (Winchester), Town Run (Stephens City), Lake Holiday and Sulphur Springs Run. Discharge reports, which by law must be made to the commonwealth within 24 hours of a discharge event, also list “unnamed tributaries” in Frederick County receiving discharge from Lake Holiday.
Many discharges happen simultaneously in multiple locations during heavy rain. A recent example occurred on May 5, when prolonged heavy rain caused overflows at 14 manholes throughout Winchester for up to 34 hours, accounting for about 166,000 gallons of discharge into Abrams Creek. The lift station at 452 Superior Ave. also overflowed for six hours, with an unknown amount of discharge, according to reports.
On that same day, several lift stations at Lake Holiday discharged more than 100,000 gallons of wastewater into the lake, reports indicate.
This type of discharge can cause repeat flooding in certain locations. One example is a low-laying area of Jim Barnett Park in Winchester, along Abrams Creek near the playground, which is known to flood with discharge from a manhole there.
Perry Eisenach, public services director for the city, noted that 2018 was a year of record rainfall in the region. He said the constant heavy rains stressed the city’s water system, which is one of the oldest in the nation.
But the age of the city’s system can be a problem even in years of normal rainfall, Eisenach said. All nine of the city’s lift stations are “very old,” he said. “A lot of these old manholes are brick, and water just flows right through them.” Some of the sewer lines are made from clay, and water seeps out continuously. He estimates that between $75 million and $100 million in infrastructure work is needed to bring the system up to capacity.
“We have a plan that’s in progress,” Eisenach said about addressing the discharges, which are a violation of State Water Control Law. “We certainly take this very seriously.
More immediate fixes include inserting plastic linings into old pipes. Two lift stations in Winchester in the worst condition (on Pennsylvania Avenue and Conway Street) are slated for improvements in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which allocates $1 million to $1.5 million for each, Eisenach said. There also is a project planned to replace the sewer pipe with a larger pipe between East Piccadilly and Clark streets, which will cost about $2 million.
Eisenach and Kiracofe said Winchester isn’t alone in dealing with the problem.
Eric Lawrence, executive director of Frederick Water, said the agency’s water system is fairly new — it’s only about 40 years old — so infiltration and inflow is typically not a problem.
But infrastructure such as the Abrams Creek Interceptor, which is a water line owned by the Frederick- Winchester Service Authority, is believed to have infiltration and inflow issues, causing sewer overflow at a metering station at 100 Woody’s Place in the Carlisle Heights subdivision in the county.
“Frederick Water has an aggressive maintenance effort of inspecting sewer lines to identify damaged lines that could contribute to I&I, and then make the necessary repairs,” Lawrence said in an email. “As a result of the maintenance effort, [Frederick Water] experiences only limited I&I events.”