As agencies across Georgia scramble to fight off a myriad of crisis’s like coronavirus, sweeping budget cuts, gang violence, human trafficking, flooding, etc. there is one literally looming beneath the surface that is receiving little attention. It will, however, get all of our attention when it bubbles up in our backyards. I’m referring to Georgia municipalities’ aging sewer infrastructures.
As the rains continue to fall and the deadlines for grant applications draw closer, I anticipate this to be one of the most competitive grant cycles in history. Hundreds of cities Pembroke’s size received their first federal funding to install sewer systems in the 1960’s and 70’s. This followed a string of wet winters in the 1960’s that caused thousands of septic systems and small treatment plants (that were inadequate to deal with the largest housing boom in history) to fail. These systems revolutionized small-urban life and the way these municipalities operated. They were no longer just governments that patrolled streets and fought fires; they were developers and utility companies.
Now, as many of these systems celebrate their 40th, 50th and even 60th birthdays in some of the wettest weather in recent memory, they are all failing. It’s not anyone’s fault because these systems have done exactly what they were designed to do: serve a growing population for a half a century.
The same right-of-ways and road corridors that hold our sewer lines hold our beautiful street trees that put down roots in and around terra-cotta pipes. Our naturally- acidic soil corrodes galvanized pipes over time and even one of the greatest invention of our time, PVC, is not immune to stress, overwork and accidents. As cracks appear, groundwater pours into the system and is pumped to our treatment plant. We are treating millions of gallons of clean water every year consuming unnecessary power and placing unnecessary demand on our treatment facility. On the surface, hundreds of broken cleanout valves hit by generations of cars and lawnmowers accept rainwater and runoff into the system doing the same thing.
Fortunately, thanks to an incredible amount of foresight by staff and partners past and present, the City of Pembroke has kept up with grant cycles and gradually replaced much of its sewer system as it reached the end of its lifespan. There are lists of Community Development Block Grant awards documenting millions of dollars invested by the federal, state and local government. There are boxes of documents showing where hundreds of thousands of SPLOST dollars have been invested in stormwater and sewer infrastructure.
In fact, when I served on the last SPLOST committee and they wanted pictures of past projects I struggled to find SPLOST funded projects above ground to photograph!
Many cities sadly do not enjoy such progress. The reasons vary from lack of staffing to write applications, lack of funds to match and even lack of local contractors to implement projects. There is a great day of reckoning coming and the environmental response will cost more than the repairs and preventative maintenance that could have been done.
The City of Pembroke is currently undergoing the process of applying for a Community Development Block Grant to repair, replace and rehabilitate sewer lines in two neighborhoods. West Burkhalter-Mikell- Butler Street and South Main-South College-East DuBois Streets (including F O Miller Village and Savage Creek Apartments). I’ve gathered surveys from most of these folks as documentation and am now collecting letters, work orders, EPD reports and other documentation of need. If awarded the $750,000, work will begin almost immediately. To everyone who has helped in this endeavor, you have my sincere thanks. Let’s pray together that funds are awarded, and you can receive the reliable utilities you deserve.
Finally, I want to thank the unsung heroes of Pembroke: the Water and Sewer Dept. Everybody wants to throw a picnic for a policeman (and they deserve every bit of it) but many look at the sewer dept. with upturned noses. These guys are what I call “field-engineers”. They may not know the trigonometry behind why something works but they know it does or does not. This does not mean however that their expertise is limited to shovels. With the dawning age of radio-read meters, tank monitors that send text messages and solar powered pumps, there is technology within the fence of our treatment plant that makes a police scanner look like an etch-a-sketch. Pembroke is extremely fortunate to have the people we have, many of whom could make thousands more in the rapidly growing private-public sector or in private development. So, thank you Keith Cook, Eddie Myers, Sam Stewart, DJ Driggers and Stephen Bacon from the bottom of my heart. You deserve this new system perhaps most of all.
Floyd is city administrator in Pembroke.