There’s been an increasing number of sewage spills into Charlotte-area lakes and rivers in recent years, prompting local water quality officials to issue “no swimming” advisories that often last for days.
Why it matters: In case you haven’t noticed, Charlotte is growing really fast; the cranes dotting our skyline reflect the enormous amount of ongoing construction. Development puts a strain on infrastructure like pipes and sewer lines, local experts say.
Driving the news: Out past the airport, the Paw Creek Lift Station, a water treatment facility, is being expanded to serve the western part of the county, according to Charlotte Water. When crews diverted wastewater flow to upsize a pipe last weekend, they ran into an alignment issue, causing wastewater to burst out of a nearby manhole.
Mecklenburg County said 847,000 gallons of untreated sewage was discharged from the station. The county issued a “no swimming” advisory for Paw Creek Cove on Lake Wylie, and it remains in effect.
- The spill started at 5:30pm on July 16 and stopped the following day at 1:19pm, per Charlotte Water.
- “CLTWater and the contractor are reviewing what happened and how to prevent it from happening going forward,” Charlotte Water spokesperson Cam Coley tells Axios.
About 15 people attending a five-year-old’s birthday party were swimming in the water for about two hours before learning of the spill, WSOC reported. “The whole time we’re swimming and the whole time we’re swimming in sewage,” the party’s hostess Donna Douglas told the station.
This is the fourth “no swimming” advisory resulting from a sewage spill into a Charlotte body of water so far this summer, says Rusty Rozzelle, water quality program manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
- Charlotte usually has about six or fewer per year, but “we have seen kind of a spike” in recent years, he adds.
“There’s a lot of growth in Charlotte, a lot of earth-moving going on right now,” Rozzelle says. “Incidents are going to happen when you have that much activity going on.”
Sometimes local authorities fine contractors, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the situation, Rozzelle says. It depends how the spill happened and how contractors respond to it.
- On June 30, a private contractor damaged a pipe at a house on Paradise Cove Court in Cornelius, sending 405 gallons of untreated sewage into a cove on Lake Norman, prompting the county to issue a “no swimming” advisory.
- Less than two weeks later, a separate contractor damaged another pipe at the same location, sending 200 gallons of untreated sewage into the lake.
The county did not fine the contractor for either spill because there was no evidence to indicate negligence, Rozzelle says. The North Carolina Division of Water Resources is investigating the Paw Creek Lift Station spill and will soon make a decision about possible enforcement actions, spokesperson Anna Gurney
Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones told the Observer the problem is that the city is trying to keep up with aging infrastructure.
- “The problem is, they are moving so much waste, when they have a spill, it can be extremely large, and a lot of their pipelines are on drinking water reservoirs,” Jones told the paper. He did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Between the lines: When a sewage spill occurs into a body of water that people use for recreation, the recovery process can take a while.
- First, the county issues a “no swimming” advisory and informs the community about it, Rozzelle says. They’ll put up buoys in the area to warn people, too.
- Then, they’ll have the spiller help with the cleanup, which can include everything from cleaning up “solids” like toilet paper from a creek to applying hydrated lime to the spill site.
- Water treatment experts will then take samples of the water to a lab to test for bacteria, an indicator of human waste, Rozzelle says.
The latest spill affected several square miles. Rozzelle says it likely won’t be until the end of this week until the county lifts the “no swim” advisory.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:40am on July 21 to include details from the state’s Division of Water Resources.