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System overload: SLO mulls ordinance to drive property owners to fix sewer laterals

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San Luis Obispo’s sewage system is old.

How old? Thirteen percent of SLO’s 137 miles of wastewater pipeline dates back to before World War II, and some pipes can be traced to 1910.

And although the age of private sewer laterals, which connect homes and commercial buildings to the main system (totaling about 156 miles citywide), aren’t documented, some city dwellers attest to digging up ancient, decrepit pipes.

“I’ve personally replaced sewer laterals that were probably 100 years old,” said Paul Rys, a SLO resident and property manager, at a recent City Council meeting. “I couldn’t believe the sewage system was even working.”

But SLO’s system doesn’t work all the time.

In 2016, the nonprofit California River Watch threatened the city with a lawsuit following a series of spills and illegal discharges, which led to a settlement agreement where the city agreed to make improvements to the system while repaying the group $38,000 for its legal fees.

This year, during the winter storms, four overflow incidents dumped 87,500 total gallons of sewage into SLO’s streets and polluted San Luis Obispo Creek, which flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Now, the city is in hot water with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Water board staffers recently told New Times the agency is mulling the possibility of levying fines for the recent spills.

“Enforcement staff are currently considering recommendations for further enforcement action against the city, in the context of assessing enforcement priorities throughout the region,” the regional water board’s Todd Stanley said on June 5.

SLO claims the culprit of the spills is rainwater “inflow” and “infiltration” that overwhelms the system, suddenly, during a storm. Inflow is when water rushes directly into the sewage collection system, and infiltration is the seepage of water through the ground into old, porous pipes.

Combined, inflow and infiltration overloads the pipes and causes the spills, the city says, in addition to bringing millions of gallons of extra “peak flow” water to the SLO wastewater treatment plant.

“Every gallon of water that goes through the collection system, we have to treat at the [wastewater plant],” said David Hix, SLO wastewater division manager. “That takes energy, it takes chemicals, and plant staffing.”

To curb inflow and infiltration, the city says both main lines and private laterals need upgrading. In 2015, SLO adopted a capital improvement plan that commits to repairing at least 2 miles of city pipe each year, although Hix said the agency’s fallen short of that goal. But officials say that private sewer laterals are also “major contributors” to the inflow and infiltration, based on video studies.

Facing mounting pressure from regulators and the terms of the California River Watch settlement, the city is considering an ordinance that would push property owners to examine their lateral connections and make repairs when necessary. On May 16, a proposed ordinance came before the City Council for adoption, but the council voted unanimously to continue the item to a later date.

“I don’t think we’ve had enough time to do the kinds of outreach we need to do to really get a handle on exactly how we want to roll this out and exactly what we want to do,” City Councilmember Carlyn Christianson said.

As it was proposed May 16, the ordinance outlined several “triggering events” that would mandate a private lateral inspection, which included the transfer of ownership of a property, two or more overflow incidents at a property, and applying for a new building permit that would increase sewage from a property, among other triggers. The city would then review the inspection report and determine if the lateral needed repairs or replacement.

Replacing a sewer lateral costs about $8,000 on average, according to the city, and it would be the property owner’s responsibility.

Several residents who weighed in on the ordinance criticized the proposal, with some dismissing the assertion that private laterals are to blame for the major overflows in the city.

“The overflows come very quickly during or just after heavy rainfalls, which is the hallmark of massive inflow, not of infiltration,” resident Richard Schmidt wrote to the council. “The ordinance has no nexus to the problem it allegedly solves. … It diverts attention from the real issue—inflow combined in some areas with city malfeasance in the design, management, and maintenance of its under-capacity sewer [mainlines].”

SLO realtor Steven Ferrario argued that private lateral inspections are commonly done during a real estate transaction and said he thought the idea of an ordinance that mandated it was overreach.

“It’s a very proactive process when properties are changing hands,” Ferrario said. “If I have a client buying an older house, of course we’re going to have a video inspection. For the city to make the final determination on that, I think that’s overstepping.”

City staff will conduct more public outreach for the ordinance before returning to the City Council. In August, the City Council will consider adopting a rebate program to help subsidize sewer lateral inspections and repairs.

Contact Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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