City planning program to inspect homes for sewer system problems

Residents in East Lawrence may get an odd knock on their door later this year: A city-hired inspector who wants to look at your sump pump and perhaps even make a video of your home’s sewer pipe.

It is the latest effort by city officials to shore up a leaky sewer system and avoid tens of millions of dollars in improvements down the line.

“This will be a different type of program for us, but we think it will be an important one,” City Manager David Corliss said.

Here’s the problem: When it rains the sewer pipes in the older parts of town allow large amounts of water to seep into the sewer system. That water shows up at the city’s lone sewage treatment plant and puts a strain on the plant’s capacity during wet weather. The Environmental Protection Agency already has put the city on notice that the city may have problems in the future meeting the EPA’s wet weather treatment regulations.

Rather than spend $40 million or more to make improvements at the sewage treatment plant and to pump stations throughout town, the city is looking to spend about half that amount on an eight-year program aimed at reducing the amount of water that seeps into the sewage system in the first place.

“You can either catch it before it gets in there or you can build a system to treat it and get it out,” Mayor Mike Dever said. “I think the way we’re doing this will be a good thing.”

But it is going to involve inspectors entering about 1,500 homes, primarily in East Lawrence. Inspectors will be looking for problems such as sump pumps that drain into the city sewer system, down spouts that drain into the sewer system, exterior stairway drains that flow into the sewer system, faulty sewage service lines and a host of other similar issues.

City officials are working out the details of the program, but Corliss said his recommendation will be that the city create a fund to pay for any improvements needed at a person’s home. Homeowners wouldn’t be responsible for the fixes. For example, in other communities that have done this — Columbia, Mo., and Springfield, Mo., are a couple — cities have contracted with a host of local plumbing companies that create a set price for correcting certain types of problems. An engineer told the city this week that a standard sump pump rerouting, for example, may cost about $2,000.

With prices like that, the project won’t be cheap. City officials are prepared to spend a significant amount to reduce the amount of stormwater entering the sewer system. The city’s wastewater master plan has budgeted about $19 million over eight years to address the infiltration and inflow problem, said Dave Wagner, the city’s director of utilities.

Not all of that $19 million, however, will be spent on repairing the faulty sewer systems of homeowners. A good portion of it will be used to place special liners in the main sewer lines that run across the city. A breakdown on how much money will be spent specifically on addressing problems with private systems versus addressing issues on the public system hasn’t been determined yet.

But city commissioners this week got the ball rolling on the project by approving a $1.2 million contract with TREKK Design Group to design and implement the inspection program, along with other tasks.

TREKK officials are estimating that 1,450 buildings — primarily in the eastern city limits north of 23rd Street, south of 11th Street and east of Haskell Avenue — will need to be inspected. Past testing projects indicate that about 600 houses and buildings will need some sort of repair work.

At times, the testing will be fairly extensive. Inspectors in some cases will use closed circuit television cameras to film the inside of a sewer pipe to determine if there are breaks or leaks.

In addition, TREKK plans to inspect about 500 manholes and do smoke testing on about 100,000 feet of sanitary sewer lines.

Now that the contract has been approved, city officials will start developing a program to reach out to homeowners to begin asking for permission to make inspections on the property.

“We know this is going to take a large outreach effort,” said Mike Lawless, the city’s assistant director of utilities. “We know we can’t just knock on the door and expect to get in on the first try.”

Wagner said he hopes some testing can begin in 2013, but he said the inspections will extend well into 2014. In future years, other areas of town — primarily east of Iowa Street — also may be targeted for the inspections.

City commissioners unanimously approved moving forward with the project, which has a goal of reducing the infiltration and inflow problem by about 35 percent.

The infiltration and inflow project is one of two major sewer system projects underway in the city. Design work also is underway on a $64 million sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River. While this infiltration and inflow project isn’t eliminating the need for that plant, it is eliminating the need for some improvements at the city’s other sewage treatment plant along the Kansas River.

Future rate increases will help pay for both projects. Corliss’ recommended 2014 budget calls for about a 5 percent increase in the combined water and sewer bills of Lawrence residents.