Water spewing from a broken Columbia utility line severely eroded the bank of a tributary of Gills Creek last week, and workers alerted to the problem early in the night allowed the leak to flow until the next morning.
Before the leak was fixed, the water undermined a once-buried sewage line, which spilled untreated sewage into the creek.
The incident last week near Two Notch Road could have been worse if not for the action of two members of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, who noticed Eight-Mile Branch was turning white and then located the problem in a wooded area on a rainy night.
Columbia's utility department doesn't have sensors that indicate breaks in lines (though water breaks can lead to tell-tale high water use and pressure changes). Usually, city officials don't know about problems until somebody near the break alerts them. In this case, those somebodies were Carol Kososki and Michael Majure.
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Kososki and Majure are pleased their actions might have reduced the fallout from the water line break last Tuesday, but they're upset about how long it took for the city to stop the flow.
The city was alerted by 9 p.m., but water continued to shoot from the broken line all night.
"The city needs some better way to monitor sewage lines," Kososki said. "People notice a sewer break on a street, but what if it's out in the woods like this."
The spill might have gone on throughout the Thanksgiving weekend if Kososki hadn't noticed the problem while taking her daily walk with her dog along Eight-Mile Branch in the Forest Acres area at about 4:45 p.m. Nov. 24. The creek was turning milky white.
Kososki started calling people she knows through her position as vice president of the watershed association, a partnership of government entities and private individuals dedicated to protecting Gills Creek and its tributaries.
City officials from nearby Forest Acres showed up and determined the problem wasn't something under their control, Kososki said.
Majure, who has a home on an upstream section of Eight-Mile Branch, was returning from work in the Chapin area when he got a call from Kososki. He hustled home and found the creek was running clean in his backyard. But he cared enough to set out in his vehicle on a nasty night to find the source of the problem.
"As a child, I played in that creek, looking for crawdads and salamanders," Majure explained. "And now I have two children who do the same."
After checking every place the water crosses under a road, he narrowed the problem to a couple of blocks where a creek runs through a wooded area behind the Carolina Apartments. When he got out of his vehicle at the apartments, he heard what sounded like a waterfall.
Majure grabbed his spotlight and tromped through the thick underbrush to find water spewing from a split water line on the edge of the creek. The pressurized water wore a living room-size chunk of the white clay bank, turning the creek downstream into a sediment-filled mess.
What wasn't as obvious at the time was that the spill-swollen stream was beginning to undermine the sewer line buried deeper in the bank.
Majure called Kososki with the news, and she took it from there. She got a Columbia city staffer on the staffer's personal cell phone. The staffer found a utility supervisor, who got a crew out to the spill.
The city workers found the problem but, in the woods in the dark, they couldn't find the valve to turn off the water, said Joey Jaco, deputy utilities director. Thinking it was just water running into a creek, they opted to let it flow and come back at daylight.
Early the next morning, the workers returned and discovered the water had undermined the sewage line. Both lines were redirected by 10 a.m. Jaco estimates 5,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the creek.
That's a minor spill compared to the nearly 500,000 gallons estimated to have spilled into the Broad River earlier this year when a sewer lift station malfunctioned near I-20. But between the sewage and the sediment from the clay bank, the creek downstream was a mess most of Nov. 25, Kososki said.
Jaco praised Kososki and Majure for their response. "We're glad people will pick up the phone and call us," Jaco said. "Sometimes it takes somebody noticing problems for us to find out."
Kososki is frustrated that it took so long for the city to get the problem under control. She's also angry that city leaders haven't put enough money into upkeep of water and sewer lines to prevent these sorts of problems. A Sierra Club review of state records last year found Columbia had reported 558 sewage spills totaling 22 million gallons over the previous decade.
"We have a major infrastructure problem and nobody seems to want to do anything about it," Kososki said.