City pushes for new sewer line policies

Aging pipes and pesky roots have Laguna Beach officials seeking more stringent guidelines to control costs and guard against potential sewage spills.

Ten years ago Laguna Beach was at the forefront of keeping its sewer pipes clean. The city made some changes after frequent spills put it under close scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency, Laguna Beach Water Quality Director David Shissler said.

"We had spills almost twice a week," said Shissler, who started with the city 11 years ago.

The EPA fined Laguna, which was a wake-up call to closely monitor its vast labyrinth of below-ground pipes, while educating residents about the importance of maintaining their own sewer lines.

The city toughened regulations that detailed what residents and business owners were responsible for related to upkeep of pipes in hopes of preventing blockages and wastewater from entering storm drains.

For example, every property owner with a private sewer line is responsible for all presentative and corrective pipe maintenance, including connection to the public sewer. That might include but is not limited to periodic video inspection, cleaning, repair or replacement of the line and connection joint.

After a decade of growth and development, the city is again considering more-vigilant rules to help prevent sewer spills and avoid costly repairs. Laguna Beach officials are calling on homeowners, businesses and Realtors to help.

About 20 Realtors gathered in City Council chambers last week for a workshop about the proposed changes and possible incentives.

City staff is considering requiring inspections of private sewer lines during a home's sale, after a spill and during major home renovations.

Another change would require residents to install back-flow devices — valves that prevent contaminated water from reverse flowing through pipes — with any major home remodel, or if dirtied water backs up into a home or business.

The city may also mandate inspections of back-flow devices during a home's sale.

Realtors objected to requiring inspections of sewer lines as part of a sale, calling it a deal breaker.

Inspections can cost $150 to $350, Shissler said.

"If someone is desperate to sell the home, this could keep them from selling it," said Bob Hartman, a Realtor who attended the workshop. "I do not have a concern with [the city] tightening up the ordinance, saying to the homeowner, 'Hey, this is a problem, you've got to correct it.'"

While the city isn't responsible for maintaining homeowners' sewer pipes, it wants residents to know that a blockage below their house can wreak havoc to the overall system.

Every home and business has a pipe that drains wastewater to the public sewer line, which delivers sewage to a wastewater treatment plant.

Private property owners are responsible for maintaining their pipes, including the connection point to the main public line, according to the city, which maintains 95 miles of sewer lines and 25 lift stations from Cardinal Drive north to Irvine Cove.

Crews clean all parts of the public sewer system at least once a year, while some parts receive treatment every three or six months, Shissler said.

The city spent $30 million in the last 10 years on sewer infrastructure improvements, including lining pipes and repairing lift stations.

The cause of many private sewer line backups are tree roots finding their way into residents' sewer lines.

Warning signs of a potential backup include wet or soggy ground, dirty water leaking from drains, and unusual odors or sewage smells around the property.

Many of Laguna's pipes date to the late 1920s or early 1930s, and are made of clay or cast iron. The pipes have more joints, which create more places where water could leak. Newer cities have pipes made of plastic, usually polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Tree roots love water and will find the leaky area, Shissler said.

Grease is another problem, which is why the city advises against pouring grease down a drain. The city also encourages residents to not plant trees or large shrubs near sewer pipes and to repair or replace deteriorated or damaged sewer lines as soon as possible.

Possible incentives include reimbursement for the homeowner to replace or repair a sewer line. Another possibility is assessing fines for failing to repair a faulty sewer line after the third notice, according to the city.

The city will hold a public meeting to receive more feedback on the proposed changes at 6 p.m. Thursday in council chambers.

Shissler hopes to bring suggestions to the council by late March. In the meantime, he will seek input from other cities that have implemented such measures.

"We acknowledge [Realtors'] concerns about the point-of-sale condition being considered," he said in a follow-up email. "We will continue to keep our options open and gather as much information as we can before making any final recommendations to the City Council."

If a repair needs to be made, Shissler advised homeowners do their homework.

"Get three quotes unless you've got someone who is super-honest," he said. "I've seen a lot of people take advantage of people who don't know any better."

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