For years, Harahan’s overburdened sewer system benefited from an illegal fix buried near the intersection of 9th Street and Oak Avenue.
At some point, someone — it’s not clear who or when — noticed that the sewer line there passed within a few feet of a storm-drain collection box and connected the two systems, allowing sewage and water to flow into the Mazoue ditch during periods of heavy overflow.
In 2014, the state discovered the dubious workaround and ordered the city to plug it, a remedy that has forced Harahan and its residents to confront — often in quite unpleasant ways — the shortcomings of the city’s antiquated sewer system.
During heavy rains, water seeps into cracks in Harahan’s underground sewer pipes and is pumped — along with the sewage — to the wastewater treatment plant. Now that the Mazoue ditch diversion is plugged, excess sewage backs up into toilets and runs out of manhole covers in problem spots when the plant reaches capacity.
Residents on Colonial Club Drive and Franklin Avenue complain they can’t use their toilets for hours at a time, and in some cases it hasn’t even taken a heavy rain to create the problem. Overflows from manholes also have become increasingly common during storms.
J.R. Parrish of Veolia Water North America, the city’s sewerage contractor, told residents and elected officials this month that those issues, along with deferred maintenance at the city’s main sewer pump station, are major problems Veolia battles on a regular basis.
But he warned that the cost of a complete fix far outstrips the money available, and that the work the city can pay for won’t be completed until April 2017.
That wasn’t exactly music to the ears of residents who came to the City Council meeting to complain.
Dianne Smith, of Colonial Club Drive, said she recently lost the use of her toilet for 18 hours.
“If you think it’s bad with sewage on the street,” she said. “It’s in my house!”
“I can’t wait until 2017 to be able to use my bathroom when it rains,” said Jack Dean, a frustrated homeowner on Franklin Avenue. “I’ve gotta use a bucket.”
Parrish told residents that streets in the most troubled spots could get their problems fixed before April 2017.
He said Veolia is using a $4.3 million low-interest loan to do an engineering study of the entire system, which, like the antiquated clay-pipe systems in many other small towns, is riddled with cracks and breaks.
In addition to the study, some of that money was used for emergency repairs in cases where breaks created dangerous situations, Parrish said.
When the study is finished and the priorities are laid out early next year, the city will have $3.2 million to begin tackling the problems.
But is that enough?
“It won’t even come close,” Parrish said, declining to speculate on what percentage of the necessary work could be done for $3.2 million.
Making matters worse, Station 8 — the only one in the city that pumps sewage to the treatment plant — is 50 years old and plagued by breakdowns after decades of deferred maintenance.
Parrish said he is often asked why the city can’t use emergency pumps to clear water from problem areas. He said the treatment plant’s maximum capacity is 2.3 million gallons, and a heavy storm can send as much as 6 million gallons through the system. There simply is nowhere to pump the water to, he said.
Parrish was invited to the council meeting by Mayor Tina Miceli to explain the condition of the sewer system and outline what can be done about it.
The city has an operating deficit of well over $1 million, meaning it has no money to spare.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.