The City of Santa Cruz Public Works Department is proposing changes to the City’s existing sanitary sewer ordinance to require inspection of a private sewer lateral upon point of sale of a home. While the proposed changes are new to Santa Cruz, regulations on sewer lateral maintenance are nothing new to the greater Bay Area.

According to the 2011 East Bay Regional Private Sewer Lateral Program participating cities like Albany, Alameda, Oakland, Emeryville and Piedmont require that private sewer laterals are inspected by a certified plumber if:

These requirements ensure that private sewer pipes, both residential and commercial are inspected, tested and repaired with greater regularity to prevent rainwater from entering sewer pipes and sewage from leaking out.

Coastal Watershed Council recently spoke with Erin Smith, Acting Deputy Director of Public Works for the City of Alameda to learn more about what they have done to stop sewer lateral leaks and protect the environment for the past 20 years. We learned that Alameda and other Bay Area cities have had a sewer lateral ordinance of some kind in place since the 1990’s.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, an aging sanitary sewer infrastructure was a problem for Alameda and other East Bay cities. Cracked private sewer laterals allowed for the leaking of sewage and the infiltration of high volumes of groundwater and rainwater into the sanitary sewer system. These wet weather flows overwhelmed the sanitary sewer system and challenged timely treatment of wastewater. “Our area has significant wet weather flows and in the 1980’s they did whatever they could to get those wet weather flows down,” explained Erin Smith. While the City made updates to the public sewer main system, aging private sewer laterals that were contributing to the problem were going undetected. The City of Alameda decided to implement a sewer lateral ordinance that would require inspection during the point of sale of a property in order to catch the cracked pipes and remediate them.

In 2011, the Alameda sewer lateral ordinance and other similar municipal ordinances in the Bay Area were amended under the directive of the Environmental Protection Agency. Two new triggers that require inspection were added: remodeling or building and modifications in water meter size. Smith explains that because Alameda and other Bay Area cities have had these ordinances in place since the 1990’s, the implementation of two new triggers were easy to integrate. Citizens new the reasoning behind the inspection requirements and that they were making a difference in their community and environment.

Throughout the years, the private sewer lateral ordinance has had a significant impact on the reduction of sewer lateral cracks and leaks coming from the pipe itself. Smith says the benefits of having a sewer lateral ordinance are clear. “One, there are environmental benefits to a private sewer lateral ordinance and two, you can prevent property damage and property backup. It’s better to get an inspection before the pipe fails, not only for environmental reasons, but for property damage and public health.”

Bay Area cities and their citizens have made it a priority to protect their watersheds. Even though they realize that there is an upfront cost for a sewer lateral inspection, homeowners understand that by having an inspection completed, they’re not only protecting the environment, but potentially saving thousands of dollars worth of damage in potential sewer line breaks if the problem is ignored. The ordinance has also benefitted the City’s infrastructure by reducing the total volume of water that the wastewater treatment facilities need to process. Smith describes, “It has certainly contributed to a reduction in inflow and infiltration or groundwater that enters the sewer system through cracked pipe).”

Proposed changes to the City of Santa Cruz sewer lateral ordinance will be discussed at the September 18 Transportation and Public Works Commission meeting at City of Santa Cruz Council Chambers. In the meantime, we welcome you to join CWC and the public in learning more about the new sanitary sewer ordinance.