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Clearing debris yields surprises

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For years, residents in a Greenwood neighborhood complained about their streets and lawns flooding when it rains.

Workers recently discovered the underground secret that is a big reason for the problem: trash.

Greenwood stormwater workers pulled 256 tons of trash out of the drain pipes in the Whispering Trails neighborhood, on the northwest side of the city. In addition to the leaves and dirt they expected, they also found TVs, DVD players, BB guns, bricks, concrete blocks and sand.

With 566,000 feet of storm sewer pipe in the city, workers have plenty more to clean.

Greenwood’s stormwater drainage system has never been cleaned. In June, workers from the city’s newly created stormwater utility began systematically cleaning pipes with a vacuum truck, which has a hose that goes into the pipes and sucks out the debris. The goal is to reduce flooding in neighborhoods and to keep water cleaner.

The city created its stormwater utility in 2012 to follow state rules for managing water quality and now has five full-time employees. Johnson County and other local cities and towns also created stormwater utilities, which can collect fees from businesses and residents to pay for projects that maintain existing infrastructure and keep the water in local streams and ponds clean.

The fees collected pay for inspecting and cleaning drain pipes, repairing and expanding pipe systems, and making sure people aren’t pouring motor oil or wet cement into the drainage system.

One goal of the pipe cleaning work is to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into rivers and streams and ultimately the state water supply to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, city stormwater superintendent Chris Jones said.

The trash that has flowed into Greenwood’s drain pipes — or that people have shoved into them — traps more and more leaves and dirt over the years, Jones said. The backed-up pipes lead to flooding in neighborhoods and pollution in streams, he said.

“I don’t know if people think it’s going somewhere or they’re hiding it,” Jones said.

In Whispering Trails, where the homes are 40 to 50 years old, trash has accumulated in the pipes for dozens of years, Jones said.

The neighborhood is one of the first in Greenwood to have its pipes cleaned, and the work already is noticeably reducing flooding in streets and lawns, he said. The stormwater department first used the truck to clean out the drains in Shiloh Run, on the east side of the city, which took only about a week because it’s a newer neighborhood, Jones said. Trash hasn’t accumulated as much in neighborhoods built after 1990.

The city has often had to post high-water signs in Whispering Trails to warn motorists about flooding, but after weeks of pipe cleaning, officials have noticed rain draining off the streets within 20 minutes, Jones said.

After hauling out 256 tons of debris from neighborhood drain pipes in the past month or so, workers still aren’t finished. They clean out pipes a few days every week.

The stormwater department also uses the truck to clean catch basins, or the drains that water on streets flow into, when they are clogged.

In some parts of the city, such as in Old Town, workers have gone out to check if the drains were clogged because the area has a reputation of flooding during storms, Jones said. Other spots, such as along Smith Valley Road and Averitt Road, were full of dirt and had grass growing in them, he said.

Jones plans to clean every section of stormwater pipe in the city and then keep them unclogged with regular cleanings.

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