Big Stink 

Sewage backs up in city neighborhoods.

Sewage leaks from cracks in the sidewalk on May Street in Hyde Park.

Bianca Phillips

Sewage leaks from cracks in the sidewalk on May Street in Hyde Park.

Residents of flooded neighborhoods may be on the lookout for poisonous snakes, but residents in other parts of town are dealing with something even less appealing: poop.

As the Mississippi River crested at 48 feet last week, water flooded some of the city's sewer lines, causing raw sewage to drain into Cypress Creek and some North Memphis neighborhoods.

"You have some manholes that are flooded. Plus, you have standing water in areas over wastewater lines," said Paul Patterson, administrator of environmental engineering for the city's public works department. "It's leaking into the pipes because they are not pressure lines. Our lines are designed to flow by gravity, not under pressure."

For the past week, several manholes have been spewing brown water into city streets and parts of Cypress Creek.

Eighty-four-year-old Emma Loris Owens lives on May Street in Hyde Park. Last week, she noticed the manhole across from her house spouting smelly, brown water. Greenish-brown liquid was oozing from the sidewalk in front of her house.

"I'm tired of smelling that stanky stuff," Owens said.

Community activist Scott Banbury also noticed the overflow, and he alerted city officials. Days later, a work crew showed up to place sandbags around the manhole and a sign warning residents of a sanitary system overflow.

"It took the city from last Thursday until this past Wednesday to put any sign up in Emma's neighborhood," Banbury said.

Patterson said the city is being proactive, but they depend on citizen complaints to know which manholes are backing up.

"We have 85,000 manholes in our system. There are some submerged that I don't even know about. There are some overflowing that I don't know about," Patterson said. "We are trying to take a proactive stance by posting signs at overflows, telling people not to contact the water due to a health risk associated with it."

Until the floodwaters recede, there isn't much the city can do to stop the sewage backup. Patterson said both of the city's sewage treatment plants are operating, but they can't pump all of the water out of the sewer lines. The city will begin treating waste at the Maynard C. Stiles North Treatment plant this week to minimize bacteria downstream.

"The overflows will subside once the water level drops and we can catch up with what's in the lines," Patterson said.

In Owens' neighborhood, sewage is flowing into the street, but it's also leaking out of sewage vents into Cypress Creek. Since the flooding began, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has been testing local waters for E. coli. Cypress Creek's E. coli levels have been the most elevated, said TDEC chief engineer Saya Qualls.

A sample collected from Cypress Creek at North Watkins on May 5th had more than 24,000 CFU, or colony forming units, per 100 milliliters. To put that in perspective, the safe level for recreational contact is at or below 487 CFU per 100 milliliters.

This week, the city began pumping some of the waste collected in the Cypress Creek surge basin into the Wolf River, but one resident on Capital Street (who asked not to reveal his name) wondered why the city didn't start pumping sewage out as soon as it began spewing from manholes into the basin last week.

"We don't need that around here. We all pay taxes," said the resident, whose home overlooks two spewing manholes in the surge basin.

Patterson said the city wasn't able to begin pumping the sewage out until this week because "we have designated elevations where we engage the pump."

But even as the city begins pumping, more sewage continues to spew into the creek and the water will remain unsafe for human contact.

"These are not recreational waters," Patterson said. "During this recovery period, people have got to exercise judgment and stay out of the water."

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