A massive fish kill and stinky mess that closed a portion of South Chickamauga Creek to outdoor enthusiasts for the past several days began with the failure of a mechanical signal that was supposed to start pumps at one of Chattanooga's 80 sewage pumping stations.
The pumps, installed in 1978, normally send millions of gallons of raw sewage from the Shallowford Road area through a massive sewer line more than five feet in diameter speeding toward the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant.
And on most days, the pumps and sewer line (also nearly four decades old) work perfectly -- sending all our mess out of sight and out of mind into a big hole where the water eventually gets chlorinated and dumped -- more or less treated -- into the Tennessee River.
But on Thursday or early Friday, after the pumps failed to come on, so much sewage accumulated in that very large pumping station and very large pipe that it finally began spewing from a manhole about a mile upstream and near the old Sterchi Farm and Waterhaven subdivision.
The manhole was about 50 feet from South Chickamauga Creek, and by Friday, about three miles of the creek was inundated with sewage.
Raw sewage in a creek depletes the water of oxygen, and fish suffocate.
Think of the fish as the coal mine canaries of our water. South Chickamauga Creek, in addition to being a blueway along one of the city's newest greenways, is a primary tributary to the Tennessee River just 4.7 miles upstream of our drinking water intake. So this spill is an in-our-face example of why Chattanooga has been ordered by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do $250 million worth of work to our aging sewer and stormwater runoff system.
"This is mechanical equipment and (the relays and pumps and other mechanical parts) are not perfect. ... That's one of the reasons we're spending $250 million to refurbish our sewer system. This (line and pumping station) is part of the consent decree with EPA," said Alice Cannella, director of the Chattanooga Waste Resources Division, which maintains the sewer lines and sewage plant.
Cannella says engineers are still working to calculate how many thousands or millions of gallons of raw sewage spilled. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency also is preparing a count of dead fish -- for which they will bill the city. An August 2010 lightning strike idled pumps in another part of town and caused a spill of about 100,000 gallons of sewage into the Brown's Ferry Marina inlet, killing about 3,600 fish. TWRA billed the city $788 and a judge levied a $2,500 fine. Cannella says the South Chickamauga Creek spill is larger.
In the newest spill, the pump switch has been repaired. An environmental cleanup company is netting dead fish from South Chickamauga Creek and has put aerators along the stream to increase oxygen to the water. The rains Sunday also helped speed the creek back to normalcy. Cannella said biologists have told her they are beginning to see normal fish activity again near Sterchi Farm and the South Chickamauga Greenway -- a good sign.
In a city where some of our sewer and stormwater lines are more than a century old and many of our pumping stations are decades old, the real fix is far from done. Cannella says we are in the third year of the five-year first phase of consent decree work. EPA in 2012 gave the city a 15-year deadline to get all the work done.
Some Chattanooga residents already are wringing their hands about the anticipated 10 percent sewer rate increase later this year. It will cost most residents an extra $3 a month, raising most home sewer bills to about $35 monthly.
That means city residents will be paying about $1.16 a day instead of $1.06 a day to whoosh away all our excrement and dirty bath water and every other form of liquid waste that we wisely or unwisely put down a drain somewhere.
Truthfully it's not a lot of money. Most of us spend more on coffee.
And we certainly don't want that coffee to taste or smell like sewage, do we?