When it rains, sewage gushes into the James River. It's called the first flush, when the dirtiest of the dirty water washes through the massive arch and box sewers beneath the Shockoe Creek in Shockoe Bottom, says Robert C. Steidel, deputy director of the department of public utilities.
The dirty water makes its way to the James River through a 30-foot-wide pipe at the 14th Street canoe and kayak takeout on the north side of the Mayo Bridge.
Richmond is one of three cities in Virginia with what's called a combined sewer overflow system — at least the oldest, eastern part of the city, which includes downtown, has such a system. Rainwater cleans out a complex of sewer pipes. Before the wastewater treatment plant was built on the south bank of the river in 1958, the combined sewer sent all the city's sewage into the river. Today, on clear days and during light rains, the sewage stew makes it way to the city's wastewater treatment plant where it's decontaminated and then dumped back into the James.
But when the rain picks up to a minimum of two-tenths of an inch per hour for three consecutive hours, the system overflows. During one of the wettest falls in memory — a record 9.6 inches of rain fell on Richmond in November alone — the city experienced an inordinate number of combined-sewer overflows. The pipes became temporarily overwhelmed and dumped sewage into the river. Since mid-November, it happened 11 times.
“We've had more overflows than we would normally,” says Steidel, who stands on top of the giant, football-field-length Shockoe Retention Basin on Chapel Island in mid-December. The facility is designed to hold 50 million gallons of the toxic soup during heavy storms. For example, in September a below-average 107 million gallons of sewage and rainwater dumped into the river. One of the biggest overflow months came in August 2008, the month Tropical Storm Hanna hit Richmond, dumping seven times that amount — 770 million gallons — into the river.
And that was before the city's largest retention basin was put out of commission in December 2008. Since the early 1990s, nearly 10 feet of solid sewage laced with bacteria had built up inside the facility, limiting its capacity. So the city built a ramp and cut a door to allow backhoes inside to remove the buildup. When it was built in 1983 apparently no one thought to include such a door.
So far the city has spent $12.75 million on the ramp and the basin's cleanup. It's part of a massive, decades-long $700 million project to replace and expand decaying sewer pipes that started in the early 1970s — not to mention another $20 million to improve sewage and water flows as a result of Tropical Storm Gaston, which devastated the Bottom in August 2004. The overall project is so huge there's no projected completion date, says Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer and director of the department of public utilities.
The average age of the city's sewage pipes is 60 years old, Beschler says. The pipes, depending on the period, were made out of everything from granite slabs to paper. During World War II, he says, “they were making pipes out of paper, with many, many layers and coats of wax.”
Still, the primary goal of all of the work is to reduce the amount of sewage dumping into the river. When it will be complete, no one knows for sure, Beschler says: “There really is no end date.”