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Drought Backs Up North County Sewer Lines

Photo by Steve Walsh

Marvin Gonzalez, field supervisor with Leucadia Wastewater District in Carlsbad, inspects a manhole filled with tree roots, Sept. 3, 2015.

Lack of water has an impact on most aspects of life in San Diego. Sewer districts are also coping with the effects of prolonged drought.

In response to the drought that is gripping the state, San Diego County residents have been cutting back on showering, watering lawns and even flushing toilets.

At the Leucadia Wastewater District in Carlsbad, they can see the results. They have to do more maintenance as tree roots find their way into their sewer pipes and manholes. When trees are well watered, they are less likely to seek out the local sewer pipes.

“We used to come every year. Now we have to come back every three months, just to get the roots out,” said Marvin Gonzalez, field supervisor.

It’s more than drought-thirsty trees causing problems. Since 2007, this small waste water district in Carlsbad has seen the amount of sewage they treat drop by 15 percent, even as the population increased by 5 percent.

“Some of the areas in our service system now where things are flatter, where in yesteryear the solids would have pushed through very easily. Now the solids are separating out, and they are creating a lot of odor issues, and things of that nature,” said Paul Bushee, Leucadia Wastewater District general manager.

Solids can actually eat away at the walls of clay pipe. The district has added an extra video truck to monitor their system.

Problems with sewer pipes caused by the drought are being seen all over California.

“In California and in the arid West, this is going to be the new normal,” John Shaw, PE., an engineer, water and waste management consultant, based in California.

The costs of maintaining the systems will vary by the utility. One fix is to replace old clay pipe with brand new plastic, which is less susceptible to roots and decay. But, that will be expensive. Most districts first opt for better maintenance, he said.

“As the drought continues, and as conservation continues to kind of ratchet in, everyone will find the new operation and maintenance regime,” he said.

He added that a little rain wouldn’t hurt either.

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