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Dirty Water Could Prove Costly for Property Owners By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday October 21, 2005

The Berkeley City Council Tuesday began tackling a dirty problem that could cost property owners up to $4,500. 

Under a 1987 cease-and-desist order from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for local cities to repair city-owned sanitary sewer lines to reduce ground water contamination, Berkeley has been working to repair the aging system that carries sink and toilet water to an East Bay Municipal Utility District treatment facility. 

To comply with the water board’s 30-year cease and desist order, Berkeley has replaced about half of its main sanitary sewer lines. 

But the city has determined that about half of the leakage from its sanitary sewers comes not from the city-owned sewer mains but from creaky clay pipes, known as sewer laterals, that connect private buildings to the main sewer line.  

And now the council must decide how to make property owners pay for repairs. 

The sewer laterals, which are the responsibility of property owners, pose a couple of problems. Most are damaged, either from intruding tree roots or wear and tear, and leak contaminated water which can flow into creeks and the bay. Also many properties have illegal sewer hook-ups that send rain water run-off into the private sewer laterals and through the sanitary sewer system.  

The extra water, especially during the rainy season, sometimes overwhelms the sanitary sewer system, resulting in blockages that back-fill sewer water, potentially contaminated with hepatitis and e-coli bacteria, into bathtubs and city streets. 

“This really isn’t all that optional,” Public Works Commission Chair Sara Shumer told the council. “We’re talking about health and safety issues.” 

Repairing a sewer lateral will cost property owners between $3,500 and $4,500, and few property owners will be exempt from the costs, said Acting Public Works Director Claudette Ford. Out of 31,300 buildings with sewer laterals, Ford estimated 75 percent would need repairs. 

The council expressed unanimous support for requiring property owners to repair sewer laterals as a condition of selling their homes or doing remodeling work estimated to cost more than $100,000, or $50,000 if the work includes two or more sewer hookups. However, the council was not ready to endorse recommendations from the Public Works Commission that property owners be made to fix sewer laterals when the city is replacing the sewer main running down the street, and that in three years the city would begin mandatory inspections of laterals on streets where the city has already replaced the sewer main. 

Although repairing laterals at the same time the city replaces its sewer line would lower costs for property owners, councilmembers feared some wouldn’t be able to afford the work.  

“I can see some homeowners where an outlay of $3,000 to $5,000 would be prohibitively expensive,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. The council asked for city staff to return with options to help low-income property owners pay for repairs. One possibility would be for the city to pay for repairs and recoup the money when the property is sold. 

Several cities subsidize lateral repairs, but Berkeley’s sewer fund ordinance prohibits the fund from paying to do repair work on private property, said Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan. The city can subsidize repairs from its general fund, he added. 

Susan Schwartz, an advocate for keeping Berkeley’s many creeks contamination-free, praised the council for beginning to address the sewer issue. But Berkeley Property Owners Association President Michael Wilson, contacted after the council meeting, said the council needed to find a way to make sure homeowners don’t have to foot the bill. 

“The city can’t just continue to issue edicts without any regard to real world financial concerns,” he said. 

The water board recently required cities to manage the private sections of sanitary sewer systems and has been hinting that it might impose fines for cities that fail to reduce contamination, said Jeffrey Egeberg, engineering manager for the Public Works Department. 

“They are strongly encouraging that we do this,” he added. 

In Alameda County, the leaders at regulating private sewer laterals are Albany, which requires inspection upon sale of property or remodeling that exceeds five percent of the assessed property value, and Alameda, which requires inspection upon sale for buildings over 25-years-old. 

Regulating sewer laterals to the extent recommended by the Public Works Commission would cost the city $437,900 a year. The program would be paid for by fees charged to property owners, including a $185 certificate of compliance fee. 

In cases where the city orders property owners to inspect their laterals, if the lateral does not need repairs, the city would pick up the $185 fee.  

Inspections, which cost between $75 and $350, involve inserting a camera through the private lateral. 

In cases where the lateral was damaged by tree roots from a city-owned tree planted on the lawn extension beside the sidewalk, the city would be responsible for repairing the lateral. 

In most cases, fixing a lateral wouldn’t require a property owner to dig up a front yard. Egeberg said new technology allows construction workers to insert a new lateral, made of plastic, through two holes, one near the street and the other near the building.