City’s outdated sewers overwhelmed in recent downpour

Mike Wallington and Nichole Fournie survey the cleanup underway in the basement of their Minto Street home. They’ve had three floods in six years. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

A group of homeowners say Sarnia bears some responsibility for the ongoing problem of basement flooding in their neighbourhood.

“That’s something that we definitely believe,” said Nichole Fournie, one of about nine residents in the Minto Street-Tunis Avenue area.

“This is crazy. How often does this happen? Three (floods) in six years.”

On the morning of Aug. 16 a torrential downpour filled city streets with rainwater. With the sewers backed up, water entered numerous home basements, resulting in losses that have yet to be tabulated.

City Engineer David Jackson confirmed dozens of residents reported flood damage to City Hall last week.

“Many people who have called have said they haven’t had flooding in 30 years and this is the first time it’s happened,” he said.

Minto and Tunis meet in a quiet neighbourhood lined with 1950s-era homes east of Germain Park. Darcy Colborne, who moved to the area five years ago, said she had filed an insurance claim for a flooded basement just 11 months ago.

“I don’t know who can relax to the sound of water running,” she said. “It makes me think something is flooding.”

On Aug. 16, neighbours emerged from their homes and converged on the street to discuss the damage done to their furnishings and personal possessions.

Within hours, the street was dotted with vans from restoration companies.

Colborne said she knew her home was prone to flooding when she bought it in 2015. But the previous owners had invested in foundation repairs and a new sump pump.

After it flooded last year, Colborne had a backflow valve installed in the basement. This time, water surging out of the sewer drain destroyed the backflow valve and entered her basement again.

Colborne, a construction estimator by trade, believes something is wrong with the street’s infrastructure. Too many neighbours have spent thousands of dollars addressing the problem to no avail, she said, noting one neighbour even installed two sump pumps.

“It’s not because we’ve been negligent as homeowners, or we own faulty equipment. It’s because the current infrastructure isn’t designed to handle what it’s being asked to handle,” she said.

Jackson doesn’t disagree.

“The majority of the time, the infrastructure in that area doesn’t meet the current design standards … and it does need upgrading,” he said.

“The unfortunate reality is that the sewer system is only designed to handle a certain amount of flow and then it’s overwhelmed.”

Many sewer lines were installed decades ago when different standards were in place, and long-term upgrades are needed, he said.

Sarnia is about half way into the process of separating the sanitary and storm sewers beneath its residential streets, a major part of one of the largest engineering projects in city history.

Twenty kilometres have been separated and upgraded so far over the past 15 years.

That leaves about 19 kilometres left to do, mostly under streets bounded by Exmouth, East and Campbell, Jackson said.

Completing the job could take another 20 years, depending on funding.

The most recent storm unleashed 35 millimetres (1.4 inches) of rain in a short time. Meanwhile, a lighting strike knocked out power to more than 7,000 customers.

Belfor Property Restoration was “bombarded” with calls, said general manager Kevin Smith.

“Mainly sump pump failures. Usually the heavy rains combined with a power outage turns into a significant increase in volume of calls.”

Residents experiencing basement flooding should contact City Hall, Jackson said.

“We’re very sympathetic. Nobody wants flooding in their basement or in their house. But the reality is, it’s a rain event that’s beyond the control of the city.”

Colborne says she knows City Hall is working on the problem but believes it should provide some assistance to her and her neighbours.

“At the very least, the city should do some kind of mitigation so that it can handle a greater flow of water,” she said.

“And I think they probably owe a little bit to the people suffering damages.

“Some people are on their third flood.”