Flood of sewage after rainstorm


Diluted sewage flooded into the basements of some downtown businesses after an intense storm hit Steamboat Springs on Monday and overloaded sanitary sewer lines.

The general public, as well as workers who cleaned up the water -- some of who did not know they were dealing with sewage, are not at any significant health risk, said Michael Zopf, Routt County Environmental Health director.

"We're all exposed to this kind of thing periodically," he said. "I don't think there's a significant risk."

State health officials also told the county office that the flooding with sewage did not pose health risks to the public, he said.

Routt County Environmental Health officials offered help to any businesses that called the department -- giving tips about how to properly clean up and what precautions to take.

Employees involved with the cleanup were advised to take standard steps of personal hygiene, including carefully washing their hands. They also were advised to get a tetanus shot if they were not up to date and to be mindful of stomach illnesses, fever or other symptoms that could develop within a week if they were exposed to a virus or bacteria.

Jim Weber, director of public works for the city of Steamboat Springs, said he knew about a half-dozen businesses that experienced some flooding. Most were on Lincoln Avenue between Ninth and Sixth streets, and the flooding was confined to their basements.

Floor drains feed into sanitary sewer lines, which carry waste from toilets and sinks, Weber said. The drains cannot be tied to stormwater lines because toxic solvents could be spilled in a basement.

In many older downtown buildings, roof drains also are tied into sanitary lines, an outdated method of transporting rainwater, Weber said.

So much rain fell in Steamboat late Monday afternoon that the water could not squeeze into the 8- or 12-inch sanitary lines, he said. Instead, it came up through floor drains and into basements.

The National Weather Service reported that 1.1 inches of rain fell Monday, but Weber said he's heard reports that some people measured as many as 2 inches of rain during a 20-minute period downtown.

In-flow charts at the wastewater treatment plant went from an average flow of about 1,700 gallons a minute to more than 4,100 gallons a minute during and shortly after the storm. Fundamentally, Weber said, sanitary systems are not designed for such an influx.

Weber said he has not experienced any sewage backup to the extent of Monday's in the decade he's worked for the city.

Todd Savalox, owner of Images of Nature, was about to leave for the day when the storm hit. He walked downstairs and immediately saw water coming out of the drains and covering the basement floor.

He moved all the pictures and products that he could but estimated that he still lost about $3,000 worth of merchandise. He could have lost $10,000 if he hadn't seen the flooding, he said.

The water drained out, and he had his carpets on both levels professionally cleaned. He also got a tetanus shot.

He estimated a total loss of $5,000, including cleanup, and wrote a letter to the city documenting what happened.

At Mazzola's Italian restaurant, 3 to 5 inches of water flooded the restaurant, all of it coming up through floor drains. The restaurant immediately shut down and stayed closed until the water was removed and the cement floors were cleaned, owner Rex Brice said. The biggest loss, he said, was the loss of income for the night.

Carmen Welch, manager of Rio Grande Mexican restaurant, said that just as the streets filled with water, the restaurant's basement starting filling with water.

The restaurant was shut down that night and re-opened late in the afternoon the next day after the basement was carefully cleaned with bleach.

Workers were taking water out by the bucketful during the storm, she said, unaware that it included raw sewage. The water didn't smell, she said. Later, Welch talked with Routt County Environmental Health officials and made sure all employees had tetanus shots.

The water flooded only one area of the basement and was not a place where food was stored, she said.

Heather Savalox, environmental health specialist for Routt County Environmental Health, said the county checked with every business that reported flooding, and all reacted properly.

The restaurants that experien--ced flooding, including Mazzola's and Rio Grande, did a good job of cleaning up, mostly because they were following good hygiene practices anyway, she said.

There is no protocol that the county must take in such a situation, but the county was there to help and react, she said.

For the flooding to result in food contamination, food would have had to be on the floor, which it wasn't, Zopf said.

Some food at one restaurant was voluntarily condemned, but that decision was taken as an extra precaution, said Nadine Harrach, county environmental health specialist.

The city now will examine whether the flooding happened because of its negligence or because so much rain fell so quickly that it could be considered a catastrophic event or an unusual act of nature, Weber said.

If the latter were true, the city would not be responsible for paying for flooding damages.

The city's next step is to wait to see what insurance claims come in and also to video the sewer lines to see whether there were any broken pipes or other problems that could have contributed to the sewage flood.


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