An all-terrain camera has given Sparks staff a peek at what dark secrets lurk beneath the surface of this family-friendly city — and it's not pretty.
Some may ask why the city is interested in filming the filth of its residents. But when you're dealing with 100-year-old sewer pipes, a little show-and-tell can help.
The "dirty movie" demonstration was viewed on the heels of a 6 percent annual sewer rate hike approved by the city council on Monday, part of which will repair these aging sewer lines and storm drains. Sparks Utility Manager JoAnn Meacham said the oldest 9 percent of sewer lines are buried near the Truckee River and date back to the city's incorporation in 1905. More than half of Sparks drains and sewer facilities are more than 35 years old.
Maintenance crews and staff at the Geospatial Technologies (GT) office send special cameras into clogged sewer pipes and storm drains and have seen just about everything — including black widow spiders, frogs, tree roots, diapers, toys, dead animals, scavenging raccoons, skunks and even a curious rabbit that hopped out of the sewer to sniff the camera.
Apparently finding bags of drugs or bodies in the sewer system is more common in much larger cities like New York and Chicago.
More commonly, local sewer blockages occur because of encroaching tree roots, baby wipes flushed down the toilet and cooking grease dumped down the kitchen drain.
"They never see it again, but we do," said GT technician Adam Johnson.
Johnson and Brian Anderson of the Sparks maintenance crew, fed the unique camera down a manhole on Tuesday to investigate a blockage in a sewer line near 21st Street and Hymer Avenue.
On a cable system, the camera can reach up to 1,200 feet underground, and can be outfitted with all-terrain tires so crew members can steer it around corners and rotate it to catch all angles of the sewer line.
Using the digital video feed on a specially equipped truck, they found the culprit to be tree roots that had pierced the sewer line 38 feet underground and were blocking it up.
A call to another maintenance worker brought a second truck with strong vacuum capabilities to clear out the sewer blockage. Other tools used by maintenance crews include a water jet nozzle that can blast out clogs with the power of 3,000 pounds per square inch and a nozzle that usees a chain to tear through roots.
"The chain can cut through anything if you give it enough time," Anderson said. "It can cut through tree roots that are 2-3 inches in diameter."
With another dirty mystery solved, Johnson explained the other duties of the Sparks GT Office, which gathers information for better coordination among the police, firefighters, road crews and sewer department.
"Our goal is to assess lines," Johnson said.
The GT Office locates and maps out sewer lines, effluent water lines, roads and all city-operated systems. Using the camera and other means, GT specialists and other city workers assess the condition of sewer lines and roads.
By lining up the different maps, GT specialists can identify areas of the city where sewer repair can be coordinated with road repair — saving money by tearing apart a road only once, Johnson said.
The continuous flow of updated location information — comparable to the online Google Maps — helps police and fire crews quickly and accurately reach the exact addresss where they are needed. The maps also show the locations of fire hydrants, a valuable piece of knowledge in a city where new neighborhoods spring up every month.
The wealth of information at the GT Office can also be mined by local developers who want to learn the locations of these underground lines before construction begins.
"If they ask, we'll go to them," Johnson said.
However, the city is not responsible for mapping natural gas lines, underground electric lines, Truckee Meadows Water Authority water lines, Charter cable lines and underground AT&T telephone lines, Johnson said.
Back in 2006, the Sparks GT Team was the only community in Nevada to be honored for its innovation in its use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The team has helped emergency responders by recording data on common accident locations and fire crew response times.