Friday, August 6, 2010

Sioux Falls Sewage Emergency

Public Works are one of civilizations amenities until they are non operational - then utilities you take for granted that are out of sight and out of mind, during an emergency or disaster become a necessity.

Wednesday afternoon one of the City’s trunk sewer lines apparently collapsed. It collapsed likely because of the age of the sewer line, the stress of high ground water tables and heavy use; the heavy use being exacerbated by errant homeowners discharging basement sumps into the sanitary sewer system rather than outside and into the storm water system. Until investigation and study are completed, the exact causes won’t be known and longer term remedies will not be determined. The temporary fix consists of an above ground bypass of the collapsed portion of the sanitary sewer.

Natural disasters such as floods, forest fires, blizzards, tornadoes, and the like are excellent opportunities for political leaders to demonstrate leadership. The events surrounding such disasters also assure high media exposure. Politicians neither enjoy nor wish for these kinds of problems but the exposure and real political opportunity exists none the less. It goes with the territory.

When the sewer line break was discovered and the potential for vast damage was assessed the Sioux Falls Public Works department, the Emergency Management folks, and Mayor Mike Huether swung into action forcefully and expeditiously.

It was reported the break was about 2:30pm and by 4:30pm the Mayor had gathered the media and announcing an action plan. Included were pleas and orders for restricting all water use west of Minnesota Avenue north of 26th Street, and all of Sioux Falls west of Interstate 29. The Mayor also encouraged residents in the north central section of the City to action to move valuables in their basements to higher elevations. Employers were encouraged to let employees return to their homes to protect their property.

City Departments appeared coordinated, including Police, Fire, Public Works, Emergency Management, Media Service, and the Mayor. (Certainly there were others, I am just unaware of all who were involved). Over the past two days our public servants have done their job. While any damage is too much, painful and tragic to the affected, other than to infrastructure real disaster was averted. There was minimal damage. Tonight reportedly 30 homes were affected. Undoubtedly there will be more, but thousands of homes, businesses, and other buildings could have been damaged.

Maybe the City’s orders went too far. Perhaps there was overkill. But in this situation overkill is justified. Residents responded appropriately and Mayor Mike did take the lead.

The Mayor seemed to be enjoying the attention at times, but to the point: actions and results (and that is what really counts) were appropriate, timely, and effective. I understand throughout the emergency, the Mayor communicated with and briefed the City Council on the emergency.

Overall City Government worked as we would expect and deserve high marks.

Caveat – Proper repairs and improvements should be made to the infrastructure, but we should not shoot a pigeon with cannon. Several years ago when there was flash flooding and basements with water in the 33rd Street and Minnesota Avenue area in near South Side and Central Sioux Falls, the City Council rushed to judgment with their cannon to make overly extensive storm water improvements – spending $42 million on what was proposed to be a $24 million project. Our City Fathers should take a deep breadth before hurrying to call in artillery again.

Sidebar - I have been observing Mayor Huether’s job performance since he was elected and it is still too early to assess his job performance. An assessment two and one half months into his term would be anecdotal. Pundits and the public should give him a year so that he is judged by results. However, I do plan to post on Mike Huether a Work in Progress in the near future.

Endbar – Associated Thoughts – I have heard some grumbling about the discharging of massive amounts (over a million gallons) of raw sewage into the Big Sioux River and Covell Lake. I question if it would have been better backed up in homes? Is putting raw sewage more or less egregious than a petroleum spill?

With all the rain we have had in the last several weeks, the high water table, and specifically the two of 5 and 6 inch plus downpours the end of last week; what is the explanation as to why there was not flooding in the areas the Army Corps of Engineers says is in the Flood Plain? Sioux Falls is spending millions to comply with Corps’ Flood Plain revisions and property owners are paying large premiums for flood insurance – Should not there be an explanation?

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