Bath, Topsham public works officials battle against recent rain assault

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BATH — While the weather has had some people wondering whether they should start building an ark, public works directors in the area are looking for ways to handle the added pressures of the rain and the problems it causes.

One such malady, discussed at length during the July 1 Bath City Council meeting, was the report of sewage overflow on Park Street. While a $1.4 million sewer system project last year was aimed toward curbing drainage issues, the intense downpour of rain during a short period of time overwhelmed systems not built for such a watery assault, Bath Public Works Director Peter Owen said at that meeting.

“The rainfall we’ve been getting has been extremely intense,” he said on Monday. “Right after the (July 1) storm we had one Thursday night, and it was so loud on my roof it sounded like it was going to cave in. … When the rain comes down that quick, the pipelines can’t handle it … and that’s when you also see erosion in the side of roads, that’s when catch basins overflow, and culverts can get inundated because they just can’t take all the water that’s trying to get into them.”

Bath, as well as other communities with older systems, has combined sewers, Owen explained. Normally a community will have a separate storm drain system with catch basins tied in that discharge into the river, and the sanitary stream flows separately to the treatment plant.

“In Bath, what we have is areas of the town where you don’t have storm drain systems, but you have a catch basin in the street, and that catch basin is tied into the sanitary (system),” Owen said.

He explained that the system functions perfectly from day to day, and that even during normal rain storms the water stays in the ground, since the system has the capacity to absorb a little extra flow. “But when you get that real intense, high-volume, short amount of time (influx),” Owen said, “then you’ve got so much water flowing in the system the pipes can’t handle it and that’s when they back up.”

While the kind of backups from the rain storms the area has endured might occur a few times in a century, Bath experienced three of those backups in June, Owen said.

“It’s climate change, is really what’s going on,” he added. “We’re experiencing a higher frequency of what I call significant storm events.”

The National Weather Service in Gray reported that Portland received 8.56 inches of rain in June, the fifth highest amount since precipitation recording began in 1871. The wettest June of all was in 1917, with 10.86 inches. Normal rainfall for the month is 3.28 inches. The service also reported rainfall of 3.21 inches on June 19.

Owen said a storm drain system tends to be sized for a 25-year storm, adding that “the engineering behind that is if you get flooding every 50 years, people can live with that.”

Erosion hasn’t been an issue in Bath, he said, since the city has built up the sections that normally erode after storms in the recent past, such as the storm of Patriot’s Day 2007.

The city’s major issue is the combined sewer. The sewage treatment plant takes 2 million gallons per day, but processed seven times that amount after the June 19 storm, Owen said.

The city has been installing sewer separations into areas of its plumbing network to remove storm water from the sanitary system, hence reducing the strain on that system. Owen said it would take a significant investment to find a solution, and that his staff would present some options to the council in the future.

“These are very expensive fixes,” Owen said. “It’s very unpopular for us to raise sewer rates, but the only way to handle these projects is to pay for them with sewer rate increases, and right now our sewer rate does not support us doing any additional projects.”

Those projects could also be funded through a bond, he added.

The July 2 storm, along with perhaps a higher high tide due to the full moon, caused many downtown streets to flood, Bath Police Lt. Stan Cielinski said on Monday.

“Some of the streets were flooded more than we’ve ever seen before,” he noted. “We had probably half a dozen cars that were stalled out, people trying to drive through the deep water.”

Those vehicles needed to be towed, and the thunder and lightning also set off several home and business alarms, necessitating police response, Cielinski added. The carnival at Heritage Days shut down about an hour early due to the conditions, he said.

Topsham Public Works Director Rob Pontau on Monday called the recent run of rain “miserable,” adding that the June 19 storm set his department back a full week.

“Budget-wise it didn’t kill us too much, but it sets us back on what we had planned for the summer,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of ditching, culvert cleaning, roadside mowing; we’ve had to put all that stuff off because we’re doing emergency response and replacing failed drainage structures and culverts.”

Photos on the department’s Facebook page show a person kayaking in 2 1/2 feet of water at Union and Bridge streets as water bubbled out of basins, evidence of the extent of flooding. “Residents enjoying the new lakefront property” reads one caption on the page.

“The drainage was working,” Pontau said, “it just was so overwhelmed, and the groundwater was so high, that every little bit we get, it’s hurting.”

This is the time of year when the department is short-handed, with employees who aren’t allowed to go on vacation during the winter taking advantage of the opportunity to do so in the summer. The department is operating with about 60 percent of its crew, Pontau said.

“We’re coping with it by just prioritizing,” he added. “Responding to the emergencies first.”

Pontau’s crew probably can’t handle an issue like water in a resident’s backyard, since that’s private property, he said. “But if we can help them, then I’ll try to respond as quickly as I can. The key is to at least get out there and take a look at their issue and try to help. Doesn’t mean you can, but you can certainly try.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.