An overflowing sewer pipe sent all types of waste water into the waters off Pavilion Beach Monday night, causing officials to shut the beach down to swimming.
But the beach waters passed their bacteria tests taken Tuesday, and the city reopened the beach to swimmers Wednesday, confident that it’s unlikely to close again even with heavy rains Wednesday night and later this week.
The sewer typically overflows only once or twice a year and busy tidal activity at the open front beach usually clears the contaminated water away quickly, according to Max Schenk, Gloucester’s Environmental Health Services Manager.
“The good news is that because Pavilion Beach is so open to the ocean, the water flushes it out pretty quickly,” Schenk said. “Chances are, between the time it was sampled and now, the count has gone down even a little more.”
The city must report any overflows like this to the state’s environmental department, and Schenk said a combined sewer overflow project under construction in the downtown area should prevent future issues with overflowing.
“Fortunately, it’s becoming rare to some extent because of sewer work the city is doing,” Schenk said.
Results of bacterial levels in the water tested Tuesday after the overflow were given to the city Wednesday; The water test revealed 62 colony forming units, or living organisms, in a 100 millimeter water sample. State guidelines force beach closures when more than 104 colony forming units occupy the same sized sample.
According to city officials, driving rains — which often too cause water pollution through runoff — filled a well that monitors sewer flow rates Monday night. Rather than overwhelm the water sewage treatment plant, the pipes open into the ocean, releasing excess water off the Pavilion Beach front.
The system is set up to force overflow water into the ocean rather than back up the pipes into low lying homes and city streets, according to Department of Public Works Director Mike Hale.
“They’re designed to spill into the harbor when the system gets inundated,” Hale said.
Whereas years ago, overflows would last hours and even days and dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into the harbor, Hale said city infrastructure improvements have reduced the volume. The city’s long term control plan aims for only one overflow per year. The overflow Monday, which lasted about 40 minutes and sloshed about 7,000 gallons of water into the ocean, was Gloucester’s first in almost 14 months.
“The events are much smaller now, much more controlled, and we’re on the right path here to eliminate them even further,” Hale said.
Hale described the 7000 gallons as “mostly storm water with a very small amount of waste water.”
Because Gloucester rarely sees so much rain come on so fast, the system reached its capacity for the first time since May of 2012 Monday night. Almost a full inch of rain pummeled Gloucester in about a 20 minute period, forcing the overflow, Hale said. And, anytime the system overflows, the city immediately and automatically closes off the beach to swimmers pending bacteria tests results.
Though Gloucester is unlikely, statistically, to see another overflow during this eventful week — headlined by the city’s 86th St. Peter’s Fiesta — officials said that, if enough rain were to pound down to fill the sewers, the city would again close Pavilion Beach to any swimmers per state rules.
And those “swimmers” would include anyone chancing a walk on Fiesta’s famed Greasy Pole.
Fiesta Committee President Joe Novello said the three days of Greasy Pole Walks should go on as scheduled, but in the unlikely case of another overflow, event organizer would be forced to consider their options.
“We would have to delay, cancel or figure something out,” Novello said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.