by Michelle McNiel
WENATCHEE -- City workers have made some unpleasant discoveries over the years as they worked on storm-water pipes in Wenatchee and East Wenatchee.
A couple of years ago, they found sewage in the storm drain near East Wenatchee City Hall and the old Eastmont Junior High School. They were unable to determine whether it came from a poorly connected sewer line or from one that had deteriorated.
Four or five years ago, Wenatchee workers sniffed a foul odor coming from a storm pipe near Pioneer Middle School. After a little searching around, they discovered that toilets in some of the bathrooms were flushing into the storm system -- and out into the Columbia River -- rather that into the sewer lines that carry waste to the treatment plant.
"In the past, we would find these from time to time, usually on accident, while cleaning lines," said Steve King, public works director for the city of Wenatchee. "We'd run cameras up the line and figure out what was going on. Then we'd fix it."
But state and federal requlations are now requiring a host of cities, including Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, and counties to create a plan to check their storm-water systems more routinely for such problems. The cities and Chelan and Douglas counties all adopted plans for doing that, and are required to start carrying out those plans by midsummer.
"Before, there was not a lot of maintenance or emphasis on water quality in the storm drains," King said. "We haven't had a program to go out and look for illicit discharges. Now, with the Clean Water Act, we're required to do it."
King said the city has known for the last decade that the requirements were coming, and have been working toward them for four or five years.
Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Chelan, and Douglas counties formed a partnership called the Wenatchee Valley Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination Program. They all expect to adopt plans for addressing runoff from construction sites over the next few weeks.
"The whole business is to avoid pollution going right in the rivers and streams," said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. "We've found these historic misconnections -- some of these cities are 100-plus years old -- that happened back when everything (waste) went straight into the river."
She said in some cases, old systems have not been upgraded, or sewer lines were accidentally tapped into storm drains because cities and counties didn't have good mapping of their pipe systems.
"An embarassing example for the Department of Ecology and the state of Washington is that at our own Vancouver field office, which we rent, they accidentally hooked our bathrooms into the storm drain," she said. The bathroom waste was going straight into a creek untreated. The creek was found to have fecal coliform bacteria and an investigation into where it was coming from uncovered the sewage line mixup, she said.
In 2009, the state Legislature approved $9 million in new grant funding to help local governments meet new storm-water permit requirements. More than 100 government agencies covered by Ecology's storm-water permit received $50,000 each to help run their program. Another 15 communities shared an additional $3 million in grants.
Together, the four local governments received $77,000 to develop a cache of materials for use by residents, businesses and schools to address storm-water discharges.
The project partners will conduct field testing, purchase spill response equipment, and car wash kits for charity fundraising events. Another $100,000 to the partnership will be used for training and to develop an operations and maintenance template that also will be made available to others.
According to Ecology, storm-water runoff is the state's largest source of pollution to urban waters, carrying a mix of bacteria and chemicals downstream into the state's lakes, rivers and marine waters. A number of the state's river and streams test high for fecal coliform bacteria and toxic chemicals.
King said Wenatchee will begin doing routine testing of its 75 miles of storm-water drains as it does annual maintenance.
"Our goal is to run our cameras up each pipe every couple of years to look for problems," he said. "We have not had the resources to do that in the past. It's just a massive amount of work."
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