By Deborah Blumberg
In 2005, after an especially wet summer and a significant fall storm, the Metropolitan Council — which provides sanitary sewer treatment for 2.7 million users in the Twin Cities metro region — alerted officials in West St. Paul to a serious problem.
The city was exceeding its limit for the amount of clear water — from rainstorms and other groundwater sources — that it was allowed to have enter the sanitary system. The problem occurs when groundwater infiltrates the sanitary sewer system through cracks or leaks in sewer pipes that have deteriorated from age, from damage, or from root infiltration, rather than going into storm sewers like it should.
After the rainstorm, West St. Paul joined 78 other municipalities on the Met Council’s list of high inflow and infiltration (I&I) municipalities. According to the Met Council, up to 80% of I&I issues in a city can stem from leaks in sewer pipes that are on private property. The remedy is to repair or replace the leaking infrastructure.
West St. Paul had to act fast to avoid hefty surcharges from the Met Council, and the city quickly designed and implemented an I&I program to address the issue. The city’s initiative was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2019 City of Excellence Award.
Since identifying the issue, West St. Paul has consistently gone above and beyond, dedicating more than the bare minimum resources required to address the problem, says Kyle Colvin, manager of engineering programs at the Met Council. “They’ve been very proactive,” Colvin adds.
Treating clear water is expensive and, while the Met Council permits all municipalities to have a small amount of seepage, excess clear water in the system is prohibited. Too much excess can overtax aging pipes and lead to spills and backups into properties, creating public health and general safety issues.
“It’s important to try and identify and eliminate these sources from getting into the system in the first place,” says Colvin. “Once in the system, it becomes much more costly.”
An evolving plan
In 2007, West St. Paul committed to spend about $152,000 per year for a period of five years to address its excess flow problem. The city had to submit a work plan and progress report to the Met Council, but the council doesn’t dictate exactly how an individual municipality should solve its I&I problem.
“The community is in the best position to know where and how to eliminate these excess sources of I&I into the system,” says Colvin. “West St. Paul put into place a program that exceeded the annual amount required.”
When West St. Paul first kicked off its I&I program, inspectors who were consultants and not city workers went block by block inspecting property owners’ sewers for I&I issues — leaks or cracks that needed to be repaired.
Property owners with faulty pipes were then told that they had to repair the faulty pipes, an endeavor that could cost them several thousand dollars.
“That was hard for people to take, but they did it,” says West St. Paul City Manager Ryan Schroeder. Over the next several years, the program slowly evolved from there.
Connecting pipes to a purchase
In 2016, officials decided to tie pipe inspections to the home-selling process and create a point-of-sale system. Now, when homeowners in West St. Paul put their home up for sale, they are required to have their lateral line — the sewage service line between their house and the street — inspected to make sure that no ground water is entering the pipe.
A sale cannot be completed without certification from the city that the pipe is in compliance. “There’s money in the transaction that can be used,” says Schroeder. “If there’s a problem with a pipe, we say you have to fix it or you can’t sell your house.”
Typically, a seller will pay for the repair prior to closing. In some cases, the city will allow the homebuyer to take responsibility for the pipe repair.
“It’s still a lot of money to do the repairs,” says Public Works Director Ross Beckwith, “but it’s a better time in people’s life to do it. People accept it more. And now, with inspections, we’re halfway through the city.”
One of the biggest program challenges has been with marketing and education, says Schroeder. Social media, newslet-ters, and plenty of outreach to the local real estate community and to future home sellers has helped.
“It’s a continual effort,” Schroeder says. “We want to make sure the real estate community is well-informed.”
Working with homeowners
In the program’s current iteration, the city inspects property owners’ lateral lines free of charge in an operation led by West St. Paul I&I Inspector Eldon Rameaux.
Since Rameaux started in the position three years ago, he has performed over 1,500 pipe inspections, including residential, commercial, industrial, and retail properties. Within the last year or so, Rameaux says, property owners’ understanding and acceptance of the I&I program has grown as word has spread around the community.
Homeowners selling their property start by calling the city and arranging for an appointment with Rameaux. He then inspects the pipes free of charge. In other cities, property owners are required to pay for their own pipe inspection, which can end up costing the homeowner several hundred dollars. Rameaux scopes pipes to determine whether they’re compliant or non-compliant and he then provides the property owner with a comprehensive report.
Recently, West St. Paul tweaked its program. The city had previously given homeowners a 10-year certification for making repairs. Now, homeowners who completely fix their pipe from the sewer stack in their basement to the main can get certified for 25 years. What’s more, residents who repaired their I&I issue before 2016 now have until 2026 until they’re required to have their pipe inspected again by the city.
Pipe problems typically fall into one of three categories:
- A crack in the pipe is letting water in.
- Seals on a pipe’s segments have deteriorated, allowing tree roots to widen the gap.
- Underground minerals have worn away parts of the seals.
If requested, Rameaux has a list of a dozen or so licensed and insured contractors in the area who are capable of performing the pipe repair.
“It’s neighborhood and age-related more than anything else,” says Rameaux about broken-down pipes. “Older parts of town have the most trouble. We’re never ever going to get the system completely sealed. It’s virtually impossible. You’ve got your fingers in the dam all the time.” But the city’s program has made great strides in reducing overall I&I problems.
Since starting its I&I program, West St. Paul has significantly reduced I&I flows into the treatment system, saving millions of dollars in potential surcharges for excess flow.
A Met Council study that looks at the difference in flows from before rehabilitation efforts (from 2004 to 2007) and after (from 2014 to 2016) showed that over 10 years, West St. Paul reduced peak flows by 28% by cutting back on I&I from a combination of public and private sources.
In the oldest part of town, on the northeast side, West St. Paul reduced I&I by a third, says Rameaux. A total of $7.9 million has been put toward addressing the city’s I&I issue, with West St. Paul contributing 49% of that, private property owners 47%, and third-party funders making up the balance.
The city has completed almost 3,000 inspections since 2008, and 1,062 private sewer laterals have been repaired. To date, 54% of the city has been inspected, and around 95% of homeowners are in compliance.
In the last four years, the region has had the two wettest years on record, Colvin notes, with more significant storm events and more annual precipitation. Yet, “system flows continue to go down,” he says. “It’s a sign these programs are making a difference.”
At the same time, West St. Paul has dedicated several million dollars to improving city mains. “As we reduce infiltration in our own pipes, our bills are less than what they otherwise could have been,” Schroeder says. Sewer rates could also drop if the city were to see drier periods as the pipe repairs continue.
A second Met Council study covering the years of 2016-2018 is currently underway — to be released in mid-2020 — and West St. Paul officials are hopeful the data will show even greater savings.
Deborah Blumberg is a freelance writer.