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A recurring problem of Cotulla residents flushing non-solubles down their toilets has prompted the city council to consider renewing a public service announcement and a video made last year by local high school students.
“Don’t flush wipes” was the message put out by the students in a short film that contained slogans to bring across the message and photos provided by the city’s utility crews showing the results of trash blocking sewer pipes.
Repeated messages to the public over the past year have had some effect, according Jimmy Oranday, head of the municipal water and wastewater department, but “wipes are coming back.”
“We are having problems at the lift stations, regarding wipes,” Oranday told the council at its November meeting. “We saw a decrease, but it’s now coming back. We are checking the pumps twice a day.”
Utilities department supervisor David Wright, not present at the November meeting, has told the council on several occasions over the past year that the cost in manpower and repairs to the wastewater pumping system represent a significant financial burden on the city.
Lift stations are positioned at various sites around the city to raise the level of wastewater as it flows through the municipal sewers in order to let the effluent flow downhill towards the city’s sewer plant. Those lift stations, Wright and Oranday have said, are continually blocked by non-soluble waste that is being flushed from residential and commercial inlets.
In residential cases, Wright said, so-called baby wipes, food wrappers, plastics, toys, bags, condoms, syringes and other items that do not break down or dissolve in the sewer system are creating wads of debris at pump sites and, if not pulled out by hand several times a week, result in irreparable damage to the pumps.
The city has yet to put a price tag on its annual expenses for lift station pump repair or the labor hours expended on repeated forays into the sewer system to clear the debris.
“Basically, anything that people don’t want other people to see, is what’s being flushed down the toilets,” Wright said in a recent interview.
“The wipes are getting pretty bad,” Oranday told the council last month. “Stop flushing wipes, that’s the message we are trying to get out. Pumps and motors are expensive. Dispose of non-soluble waste in the trash instead.”
Wipes referred to by the city staff include those intended for babies as well as adult toilet wipes, paper towels and assorted non-soluble hygiene products.
“Even though the labels on these products say they are flushable, they’re not,” Wright said. “They will go down the pipes, if that’s what someone means by ‘flushable,’ but these products should not be in the wastewater system.”
Many of the products identified by the city as causing blockages appear to be made of paper but are made with cloth or fabric, Wright said, and local residents may be unaware that the wipes they are flushing down toilets are causing the sewer system blockage.
“We need to notify the public about the wipes,” Councilor Eloy Zertuche said at the November meeting, urging the city administration to repeat its public service announcement.
“The students made a video,” City Administrator Larry Dovalina said. “That was helpful.”
“How do other cities do it?” Councilor Gilbert Ayala asked the administrator. “Is there a net?”
Oranday said the city may consider installing a bar screen at its wastewater plant but conceded that the cost may be prohibitive under the present budget. He did not offer a solution to blockage prevention at lift stations.
“Put the pictures on the city’s website,” Oranday suggested. “I have plenty of pictures.”
City Attorney Steve Pena said he believes City Hall should consider republishing the video made by the high schoolers.
“Post it on the city page so that people can see it,” Pena recommended.
Councilors took no action on the issue at their Nov. 10 meeting, as the topic was raised during a departmental report. Councilors agreed, however, on a directive to draft a public service announcement or publish reminders to local residents about flushing non-solubles.
Grease and fat, oil waste and other commercial products often flushed into the wastewater system from commercial sites are largely caught in traps positioned in the wastewater lines near those businesses, according to Wright, and the city maintains a regimen of checking to ensure businesses such as restaurants, travel centers and hotel kitchens install and maintain those traps.
“If it’s not caught in the traps, grease will solidify in the wastewater pipes, eventually becoming rock hard and impossible to remove,” Wright said. “Blockages like that make the wastewater flow even more restricted. When you add non-solubles like wipes, plastics and solids to the lines, you’ve got a problem immediately.”