FORT WRIGHT, Ky. -- If a storm system stalls over Northern Kentucky's river cities as happened in July, there's going to be flooding. And not just flooding on the streets, but sewage backups as well.
A more than 100-year-old combined sewer and storm-water system, which on a dry day in these urban communities has plenty of capacity and works just fine, say officials at SD1.
Toss in a 5-inch rainfall, and lines fill beyond capacity, causing a backup in some homes.
Changes are happening in the area, however, to help reduce the backups, including separating storm-water pipes from sewer where possible, lining old sewer pipes that are leaking or taking on more water, building holding areas, and continuing strategies such as building retention ponds, said Brian Ellerman, general counsel for SD1, Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky.
It's a big and expensive fix, he said. And the board has to weigh the priorities of the river cities against all the communities it serves, including places of ongoing growth, such as Boone County.
Historically, storm-water and sewer lines were combined, said Jamie Holtzapfel, director of communications for SD1. They were designed to, at the turn of a valve, dump overflow into the Ohio and Licking Rivers or other streams.
That changed with the Clean Water Act of 1972, and now there is an agreement between SD1, federal regulators and the state that requires SD1 to continue to address the issues associated with the combined lines.
Today, any construction requires SD1 approval on how storm water will be handled, Ellerman said. Engineers look for opportunities to install bigger storm-water pipes, he said, to send the rainwater directly into rivers and streams instead of sending it through treatment plants, which costs money.
The state is paying for new storm-water pipes under Ky. 9 in Newport, for example, which will take some pressure off the west side of the city, he said.
Aqua on the Levee was also required to separate storm-water pipes, and the developer and SD1 partnered on that project.
The larger pipes will help capture storm water, so other areas can benefit, Holtzapfel said.
It's likely new development at the Newport Intermediate School site will also be required to hook into the separate storm-water system.
Manhattan Harbor in Bellevue has been required to address storm water, but it's doing it differently, said Holtzapfel. A large pipe was built under the homes, which "is used to store combined wastewater and storm-water flow when our system is full. … The storage pipe slowly releases the combined flow" to a treatment plant.
Backup has long been a problem in Covington's Peaselburg neighborhood during heavy rains, said Larry Klein, city administrator, who continues to push SD1 to take care of existing customers before adding new homes and commercial construction.
"It's a health and safety issue," he said.
And his push has seemed to help. In the last couple of years, retention ponds were built in that neighborhood to handle storm water, mostly coming off Interstate 75's impervious surface, and it seems to have fixed the problem. Another phase will build retention ponds to help flooding in Latonia.
Yet another solution that offers some relief to overflow is lining the pipes to fix cracks and fissures within the pipe, said Ellerman.
Called Cured-in-Place Pipe Lining (CIPP), it's a technology that basically replaces the old pipe with a lining and works on pipes 4 inches to 110 inches in diameter. "It's a heck of a lot cheaper than digging up the street," he said.
The lining helps reduce storm water leaking into the pipe, and it's intended to stop sewer leakage into the ground as well and save the pipe from collapsing, he said.
Long term, all the processes will help reduce overflow, but it's not a quick fix.
And that is not the best answer for Claire Merman of Newport, who has spent nearly $12,000 to replace a family room in the basement of her century-old home after two rains, including the one in July where 5 inches fell in a few hours, causing water and sewage to back up.
"I've been here 25 years and have never had a drop of rain," she said.
Merman lost furniture and her appliances, flooring and personal items stored there. "My concern: Am I going to have this again next year?"
"It's going to rain," Ellerman said, "and big rain events are going to create flooding -- and in places like the river cities."
For Klein in Covington, who is pleased with the progress thus far, it's a project that remains in the forefront.
"It's one of my highest priorities to address this," he said. "We think public health and safety is a higher priority than new development."