The Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA) is taking the term “bad idea” to new levels with its recent proposal to encourage municipalities to adopt mandatory sewer lateral inspections and repairs during home sales in its service area. The proposal, which DELCORA claims will “aggressively pursue” the goal of eliminating the excess inflow and infiltration of clean water into area sewer systems, will do nothing of the sort. Instead, it will allow for the continued inflow and infiltration of clean water into DELCORA’s sewer system for many decades to come while making buying and selling homes in the municipalities that mandate the inspections much more expensive and difficult.
There is no doubt that the issue of sewer inflow and infiltration is serious. Whether the problem is caused by aging, cracked sewer lines, or illegal connections from sump pumps and water downspouts, too much clean water being pumped through the sewer system can cost municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, DELCORA estimates that in 2009 municipalities in eastern Delaware County paid approximately $7 million to treat clear water that had entered their system through cracked pipes. There are also serious environmental and public health problems that can result from our municipal sewer systems being overburdened.
For all of these reasons, DELCORA and its municipal partners should get serious about fixing the problem instead of putting it off for decades through an approach that will amount to less than a band-aid.
Municipal ‘point-of-sale’ inspections are nearly pointless
In most Delaware County municipalities, only 1 – 2% of homes are sold annually. This means that in a medium-size municipality of approximately 2,000 homes, only 20-40 homes would be inspected for sewer-lateral issues each year. At this rate, it would take more than 60 years to inspect and potentially repair the entire housing supply in a community. In the City of Chester, one of the oldest and most populous municipalities in DELCORA’s service area, it would take approximately 100 years – one century – to inspect all of the private sewer laterals if done only at the time of real estate sales.
Not only is this plan completely inadequate to address the sewer lateral problem, it is also unreasonable and unfair to place the burden of these inspections only on county residents who are selling a home. Municipal officials should be reminded that Delaware County’s housing market is just beginning to recover from the worst real estate recession in many decades. Many home owners still owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Those owners who are fortunate enough to have some equity in their homes have seen their values drop by a large percentage over the past five years. Therefore, assuming that there will be “money on the table” during a real estate transaction to make expensive sewer lateral repairs is misguided.
What’s the solution?
The good news is that there is no need to “re-invent the wheel” in coming up with solutions to this important problem. There are plenty of best practices being utilized in other areas of the country that could help ease the financial burden of these important repairs.
In California, municipal water and sewer authorities have begun providing low-cost loans to home owners who need to repair a sewer lateral line. In St. Louis County, Missouri, a program has been in place since 1997 that provides grants to home owners for sewer lateral repairs through a very modest municipal tax of $28 per year. For a little more than $2 per taxpayer per month, this insurance-like program covers the cost of a private sewer lateral repair. A similar program exists in Boston, MA, where the sewer and water authority provides one-time grants to repair damaged laterals.
With solutions like those mentioned above already being implemented across the country, there is no excuse for introducing a program that will both fail miserably to address the problem; and fleece home owners for the highest possible repair cost when they sell their home.
Jamie Ridge is president/ceo of the Suburban Realtors Alliance