Damage done
This is the pump at Vallemar Lift Station, which belongs to MWSD and is maintained by SAM. It failed on Friday due to flushable wipes that do not break down and often cause equipment failures. Photo courtesy MWSD

Lately, many people have been disinfecting their homes with cleaning wipes, using more paper towels and napkins than usual, and relying on baby wipes when toilet paper is in short supply. Much of it is being flushed down the toilet, and officials say that is clogging sewer lines and leading to costly repairs.

Over the weekend, Montara Water and Sanitary District General Manager Clemens Heldmaier said one of the district’s pumps failed because of flushable wipes clogging the system.

The problem was noticed on March 20, according to Heldmaier. The flushable wipes caused the pump to get stuck and the breaker blew, which led to a power shutoff. That alerted staff. The Sewer Authority Mid-coastside staff called a pump repair contactor who installed a backup pump late on Friday evening, according to SAM General Manager Kishen Prathivadi.

The cost to MWSD: about $50,000 to install the backup pump.

“We can not have these issues because it is going to cost us money,” Heldmaier said. “It also puts our sewer workers at risk because they have to dive into this and get the rags out.”

Both Heldmaier and Prathivadi are using various methods to educate the public about what can and what cannot be flushed down the toilet. When MWSD sends out its bills to customers a newsletter provides best practices. SAM recently purchased the rights to air a YouTube ad for Coastside residents that goes over what is flushable and what causes issues for the system. The advertisements started airing last week and, so far, Prathivadi said its received good engagement with viewers.

“I think the events this past month or so have surprised everyone on multiple levels,” Heldmaier said. “I do not think anyone could have foreseen a pandemic being declared and all of a sudden people begin to flush wipes.”

People should dispose of wipes, paper towels and napkins in the trash or recycling. Heldmaier reiterated that flushing them down the toilet will be expensive for the district and he notes the wipes could be contagious.

SAM and MWSD are both considered essential services and while offices remain closed to the public, staff is still working as normal.

Prathivadi said SAM’s initiated some new protocols such as having each driver arrive in the field in a separate truck and to maintain at least six feet distance from each other. Additionally, workers must wear masks and gloves.

“We are doing the best we can to keep it as businesses as usual,” Heldmaier said. “Our focus is to keep the water flowing and sewer treated.”

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