Wipes, socks and T-shirts causing sewage backups; city asks residents to flush only toilet paper

photo by: Contributed photo

A buildup of fabric and wet wipes, pictured, caused a level indicator to fail at a city pump station. The City of Lawrence is reminding people to flush only toilet paper.

Alarms are sounding at City of Lawrence sewage facilities, and it’s because of what residents are flushing down their toilets.

Since the coronavirus outbreak has led to empty toilet paper shelves at stores, city engineers say there has been a substantial increase in the amount of cloth items causing issues in the city’s wastewater pumps and plants, including wipes, washcloths, towels, socks and even T-shirts.

Treatment Division Manager Leah Morris said the increase in such material has required more staff time to address flow backups at various points in the wastewater collection and treatment process so that the system doesn’t get clogged.

“We have cleared more material out than we typically see, at every point that we clear material out within the process and at the pump stations,” Morris said.

Because of the limited availability of toilet paper, the city has been reminding residents that nothing but toilet paper should be flushed down the toilet. In social media posts, the city states that facial tissues, paper towels and even “flushable” wipes should not be flushed. The messages advise that flushing those more durable paper products and other nonflushable materials could lead to costly problems with residents’ plumbing, including backups, as well as problems with the city’s wastewater infrastructure. Morris noted that even wipes labeled as flushable should not be flushed down the toilet because they do not break down like toilet paper.

The city’s Wakarusa Wastewater Treatment Plant, which went online in early 2018, cost $74 million to construct and was one of the city’s most expensive infrastructure projects in recent years. All together, the city’s wastewater collection system includes 400 miles of sewer mains, 15,000 manholes and 38 lift stations, which are used to pump sewage toward the city’s two wastewater treatment plants, according to the city’s website. The stations are monitored remotely, and alarms notify operators to certain conditions, such as flow backups.

Though the wastewater system includes screens to remove debris, Morris said wipes and other cloth items could get caught in water-level indicators, pumps, pipes and other equipment. She said those buildups and backups cause the alarms to go off, requiring staff to respond.

“We’ve seen alarms because of things getting snagged on level indicators or we’re seeing flow back up,” Morris said. She said those alarms happen at all times, including in the middle of the night and on weekends, requiring additional staff hours.

In addition to the time required to clear backups and other issues caused by wipes and other nonflushable items, Morris said those items could potentially damage equipment and require it to be replaced.

Morris said that people flushing items such as wipes or cloth was not new, but there has been a substantial increase in the amount of nonflushable material that city staff is having to remove from city infrastructure since the coronavirus outbreak. She said that increase is not just in Lawrence, and that municipalities all over the country are encountering similar issues.

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