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WWU battles persistent sewage leak affecting Outback Farm

Efforts continue to seal aging, leaking pipes in 60-year-old system

A student walks toward the foggy gated entrance of the Outback farm.
A student walks toward a gated entrance of the Outback farm Tuesday (Isaac Stone Simonelli/Cascadia Daily News)
By Isaac Stone Simonelli Enterprise/Investigations Reporter

The flow of raw sewage contaminating part of Western Washington University’s stormwater system was stymied after maintenance staff temporarily plugged a hole in a stretch of aging piping on Monday, Nov. 27.

The recent line break and other degrading pipes on campus highlight concerns about a system that is being pushed beyond its useful life, a 2017 infrastructure assessment found.

Starting in mid-October, pungent sewage was observed flowing into a waterway on the Outback Farm, dramatically impacting operations on the student-driven farm and forcing the cancellation of the Fall Harvest Jubilee for the second consecutive year due to sewage contamination. 

However, the university said there was no indication that the soil in the Outback Farm was impacted.

“None of the cultivated areas adjoin the stream channel directly,” Joyce Lopes, the vice president of business and financial affairs at the university, said in an email.

Lopes’ November email to university students and staff went on to explain that the areas impacted by the sewage were not near any water intake facilities and would “not affect drinking water or the overall water supply in the nearby facilities.”

A bright yellow sign posted at the main entrance to the Outback Farm warns of a sewage leak.
A sign posted at the main entrance to the Outback Farm warns of a sewage leak that has contaminated the waterway that runs through the experiential learning space. (Isaac Stone Simonelli/Cascadia Daily News)

The hole was identified during a visual inspection of all 12 potentially problematic pipelines in the Fairhaven College Complex’s 60-year-old sewer system. 

“We discovered there was a clear break in Stack Three,” said Amanda Cambre, the director of Facility Development and Operations on campus. “It was so clear that the camera fell in the hole and we could watch material follow the camera.”

After digging their way to the presumed “main culprit” the maintenance team is now scheduled to seal the hole with a lining by the end of the week. The lining, which has a minimum 50-year design life, will provide additional structural integrity and allow the system to continue “limping along” until the university is able to fully renovate the complex, Cambre explained.

Scoping and repairs have cost more than $125,000 so far, though Cambre said that it could go up if additional pressing issues are identified.

Sewage pipes beyond useful lifespan

This is the second leak discovered at the Fairhaven complex in as many years.

The university-wide infrastructure assessment conducted in 2017, identified the sewage pipes as being “beyond their useful life.” The goal of the assessment was to help the campus Facility Development and Operations Department identify risk factors and prioritize efforts.

Any time there is a leak or break in Fairhaven’s sewer system, it finds its way into the stormwater because of how the stormwater pipes degrade, Cambre said.

Top down view of a stormwater pipe with the sewage draining into it.
Sewage leaking into a stormwater pipe and flowing through the Outback Farm was temporarily plugged by Monday, Nov. 27. More permanent repairs are expected by the end of the week. (Isaac Stone Simonelli/Cascadia Daily News)

Diagnosing the problem is challenging because the sewer lines are 16 to 25 feet underground and the system was not designed to be easily scoped. Yet, contractors have identified potential sewage seepage from three other pipes that require immediate repairs, which the university is prioritizing.

By the end of next summer, all sewage pipes from the stacks are scheduled to have been lined and modified to allow easier access for visual inspections.

“That way we know everything’s been sealed and hardened and should be durable for, hopefully, until we get to that replacement,” Cambre said, noting that the university was taking preemptive action on the other pipes to safeguard sewage from ruining another fall at the Outback Farm.

Impacts on learning out back

The 5-acre Outback Farm on campus was established in the 1970s as a place for learning, advocacy and agriculture as it built a community around food justice and ecosystem restoration. It includes an experiential learning space next to the waterway where students were exposed to sewage odors.

“It was not pleasant to be in the outdoor classroom,” John Tuxill, an associate professor at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the faculty advisor for the Outback Farm, said of the odor. He went on to note that the sewage also prevented students from participating in an ongoing ecological restoration project in the riparian environment. 

An outback shack next to a shed full of different assortment of tools.
The five-acre farm on campus was established in the 1970s as a place for learning, advocacy and agriculture as it built a community around food justice and ecosystem restoration. It includes an experiential learning space next to the waterway where students were exposed to sewage odors and contaminated water. (Isaac Stone Simonelli/Cascadia Daily News)

Direct contact with untreated sewage is a health concern because it carries potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, said Scarlet Tang, Washington Department of Ecology’s northwest region communications manager.

Tang noted that because the leak was on private property, it was not regulated by her team.

A statement posted on the farm’s Facebook page in October said: “We are very sad to announce that because of the contamination of the Outback Creek we have to cancel our annual Fall Harvest Jubilee.” 

For about a month ahead of the scheduled event, August Miller worked along with two other student coordinators in planning the event, lining up music, food and activities.

“It was essentially like four days before the event was supposed to happen,” Miller said, noting that after a significant amount of rain, they went in for an 8:30 a.m. meeting only to be “greeted with the most foul stench.”

“We were, like, really pushing ourselves to accomplish this event for the greater community and for it to just, two years in a row, be canceled by the same sewage event was very disheartening,” Miller said.

For about a decade, the annual party has celebrated the harvest of crops and the activities supported by the experiential learning space, said Tuxill.

While the jubilee is one of the many ways students are recruited to the Outback Farm, many more informal avenues are just as important. Yet, these too have been significantly impacted by a “disturbance of this magnitude,” Tuxill said.

The impact of the sewage leakage goes beyond the Outback Farm to an increased strain on the facility development and operations team.

Refocusing resources on broken sewage infrastructure pulls Cambre’s team away from other urgent projects that have impacted everything from accessibility and livability to the learning environment, she said.

“We unfortunately have a similar level of degradation on the Ridge,” Cambre said, referring to Ridgeway Beta. “We are initiating a similar scoping exercise at the Ridge, another large residential complex on the other side of campus.”

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