Wipes, paper towels clogging sewer lines

Don’t touch your face. Don’t stand within six feet of other people. Don’t make unnecessary trips outside the house. And also this: Don’t flush those wipes or paper towels down the toilet.|

Don’t touch your face. Don’t stand within 6 feet of other humans. Don’t make unnecessary trips via car or airplane.

And also this: Don’t flush those sanitary wipes, or paper towels or napkins, down the toilet.

The age of coronavirus is the age of prohibitions, but this last one, water system officials and local plumbers say, is a biggie. With much of the known world gripped by a toilet paper shortage, people are using many things other than TP to do their dirty work. That’s fine, as long as you throw the soiled material in the trash. Flushing it can lead to clogs, and potentially toxic overflows, at homes, at wastewater treatment facilities and in the miles of sewer pipes that connect the two.

The California State Water Sources Control Board currently reports 14 “wipes-related SSOs” - short for sanitary sewer overflows - in March, out of 136 total SSOs. Both statewide numbers are likely to grow, as local agencies have 60 days to report sewage overflows.

It should be noted, though, that the ratio of cases involving wipes is much higher than in recent years: 10.3% in March 2020, vs. 3.1% in March 2019, 2.5% in 2018 and less than 1% in 2017.

Closer to home, the city of Lakeport on Tuesday posted a social-media photo of a huge, dripping clump gumming up a piece of equipment at its wastewater treatment plant. Clearly visible in the tangle were blue latex gloves. “PLEASE STOP USING THE PUBLIC SEWER SYSTEM AS A GARBAGE CAN!!” the city tweeted.

So far, Sonoma County and its cities seem to have avoided the major sewage backups that have plagued other communities in the past month. Joe Schiavone, the city of Santa Rosa’s deputy director of water and sewer operations, credits an aggressive city maintenance schedule and active public outreach.

When Sonoma County issued its stay-at-home order, Schiavone’s office made efforts to remind customers what is and isn’t appropriate for the drain.

The city’s overflow tallies, however, don’t include “laterals,” the sections of pipe between your house and the nearest city water main, or septic systems. Some plumbers say those home-based segments have needed extra attention since the county instructed residents to shelter at midnight on March 18.

“I had to give my baby-wipe lecture a little more the last few weeks,” said Greg Fremault, owner of Redwood Sewer and Drain in Santa Rosa.

Another owner-operator, Alan Bauermeister of Valley of the Moon Plumbing in Sonoma, said he tries to use a drain camera on all jobs to determine what’s causing a blockage. It’s usually plant roots that have sneaked into the line. Toilet paper breaks down so quickly that even intruding roots tend not to slow it down. The same is not true of alcohol wipes or cloth or even paper towels. They don’t decompose easily.

“Think about the paper towel commercials, like Bounty,” said Roman Scanagatta of Roman’s Plumbing in Petaluma. “You can use ’em, completely saturate ’em, wring ’em out and use ’em again. I have had to replace complete sections of waste line because I couldn’t get the paper towels out. Same with wipes.”

In many cases, Bauermeister insists, the homeowner knew better.

“The other day, I had one - I even have a picture, because it was a landlord-tenant situation,” he said. “I asked this woman if she was flushing wipes. She said no. Then I pull out a huge wad of Handi Wipes.”

A greater source of frustration is the wording on packages of brand-name cleaning wipes. “Biodegradable” or “compostable” does not mean flushable, and “flushable” is pure fantasy.

“Some sanitary wipes are marketed as flushable. False advertising,” said Michael Morales, owner-operator of Rooter-Man in Santa Rosa. “Ninety percent of the time, people are just uneducated about what goes down there.”

It isn’t just wipes doing the damming. Everyone is cooking at home more while social distancing. Some of that cooking involves oils like bacon grease and chicken fat. Restaurants are required to collect their grease in traps. Homeowners are not, and a lot of it winds up going down the sink. Somewhere down the line, it will cool and begin to coagulate.

These problems pop up far from the front yard, putting a burden on entire municipal and county wastewater systems, as well as treatment facilities. If a mid-line clog is big enough, sewage can escape onto city streets, sending a toxic stew of human waste and harmful chemicals into local waterways.

Right now, that goop might also include the novel coronavirus. Researchers have found it in the fecal matter of patients who tested positive for COVID-19, and had previously detected the SARS virus, the latest scourge’s close relative, in sewer spills in Hong Kong.

The pinch points in the wastewater outflow are lift stations. Most systems, including Santa Rosa’s, move the mess via gravity. Rather than trenching pipes deeper and deeper, agencies use lift stations to periodically pump water upward, where it resumes another gradual descent. Wipes and cloth can jam the pumps and motors that do the lifting.

Terry Crowley, utilities director for the city of Healdsburg, said his staff has been clearing lift stations there more frequently. This involves bypassing the water and physically getting into the pump or motor to remove debris. It can take a crew most of a day.

So far, the disruptions have been minor in Sonoma County. The water stewards would like to keep it that way. They have even begun repeating helpful phrases to remind their customers of best practices.

“It’s the concept of the three Ps - pee, poo and paper. Those are the only things that should be going into your toilet,” Crowley said.

“Anything yellow and brown is good to go down,” said Brad Sherwood, community and government affairs manager for Sonoma Water, the county’s water agency. “Anything else, put it in the trash.”

These officials would prefer not get any more scatological than that. Stop flushing your wet wipes, they say, and maybe they won’t have to.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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