A sewer leak into the Verde River that left some residents holding their noses last week poses no health risk after being contained, according to initial test results from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
In fact, water samples show there is more bacteria in the river upstream from the spill site at White Bridge along Hwy. 260, though river water in both locations is still within acceptable levels for the state.
It’s hard to say the exact reason for the higher bacteria levels upstream, said ADEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer, who noted bacteria levels were extremely variable at several points along the river.
Camp Verde Sanitary District Plant Manager Rick Spears estimated anywhere from 480 to 720 gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the river based on his observations.
But it’s not yet certain exactly how much sewage spilled into the river as a result of the leak, Shaffer said, because it’s unclear exactly how long the spill went undiscovered.
The ruptured pipe, more than 20 years old, is right near a brand new and larger pipe designed as a replacement that hadn’t yet been brought online.
“This was just a very, very difficult situation,” Shaffer said.
A Smelly Situation
A couple walking along the river near the bridge the evening of Sept. 4 saw the leak and reported it to CVSD, Spears said.
Spears arrived early Tuesday to find raw sewage cascading from a pipe under the bridge and realized emergency measures were needed to stop the leak from further contaminating the river while the 8-inch steel pipe could be repaired.
A temporary earthen dam was put up to try and stem the flow of sewage into the river, Spears said.
More calls came in the next morning when people showed up to work at nearby businesses to find sewage bubbling out through manholes.
Pump trucks from local sewage collection companies were called in first thing to help try and relieve the pressure and prevent even more sewage from escaping.
“It was disgusting,” said Monty Montoya, who lives by the river and works at All Classic Auto, the closest business to the spill. “We’ve been smelling this for weeks and you could just see it oozing out.”
Curt Nauer, who works at Robinson’s Equipment next door, had also put up with the smell for weeks. But by Tuesday, he couldn’t put up with it anymore.
“This is the worst it’s been,” Nauer said. “Something needs to be done.”
Spears said he had received complaints about the smell the previous week, but figured it was from a biofilter due for changing at the nearby pump station.
“I didn’t hear anymore complaints after changing the filter until the leak was called in,” Spears said.
By Tuesday afternoon, CVSD notified ADEQ as required by contract and biologists were dispatched to the site from Phoenix and Flagstaff, Shaffer said. In the meantime, a nearby pump station was shut down to help advance the repair effort.
The district also called Camp Verde Public Works Department to lend a hand. Town Engineer Ron Long said his department helped shore up the dam and dug a collection pool to prevent overflow into the river. The town also brought out a cherry picker truck to help stop the leak.
“We’re just out here to lend a helping hand,” said Long, as men covered in sewage worked to clamp off the pipe from underneath the bridge. The flow was stopped later that afternoon, but that was just the beginning of the cleanup effort, and many more government agencies would become involved over the course of the week.
Contaminated soil was trucked out while new dirt and chemicals were laid down to help cleanup the polluted riverbed, Shaffer said.
ADEQ biologists took water samples as far down river as Horseshoe Creek to check for potentially dangerous levels of bacteria.
“What we fear the most is e.coli and coliform bacteria,” Shaffer said, “But our initial test results show that the spill caused a minimal impact.”
Still, Shaffer said that anyone who feels ill after exposure to the river could seek medical attention.
Because the rupture was on a roadway, the Arizona Department of Transportation was called in. ADOT in turn notified the Salt River Project, since the Verde River eventually joins the Salt River at its mouth.
SRP spokesman Jeff Lane said water treatment plants in the Phoenix Metro area were put on alert, but no problems were expected.
“It’s considered to be a minor spill, so the any contamination is likely to be diluted long before,” Lane said.
The U.S. Forest Service was also notified and signs warning visitors were posted along the river from White Bridge to Beasley Flats, Verde District Ranger Dee Hines said.
The signs will stay up until ADEQ makes a final verification that the water is safe, Hines said.
By the end of the week, Spears said he talked with not only ADEQ, ADOT and the USFS, but also the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We had to make sure everyone was notified,” Spears said.
CVSD attorney Jim Ledbetter said that the spill was a tragedy, and that the district will work with ADEQ until an investigation is complete.
He also said the district will call a special meeting in the near future to discuss and review the causes of the leak.
The Investigation Continues
While reassured by initial reports that the leak poses no health risk, Shaffer said the final report on the leak might take up to one month to complete. He said ADEQ was looking into claims from residents that sewage had been leaking into the river in one form or another for weeks and would continue to monitor the site. ADEQ will wait until the investigation is finalized to decide what action to take, if any.
“This is just the beginning of the investigation,” Shaffer said. “We’ll file a report after all the data has been analyzed and see what comes down the pike.”
While residents near the river are happy they can breath fresh air again, they hope this is the last time they have to deal with raw sewage.
“There’s lots of people that use this river, including children,” Montoya said. “I just hope they really fix it and not just put a band-aid on it.”