The Sewer Saga, or How I Got Stuck on Page 17

The election is long over and Measure A long defeated, but the story about Piedmont's sewer system just won't go away

When the war is over, we should destroy the sewers—Gonzalo de Aguilera Munro*

This is not your standard city council story. For one thing, normal coverage of a Piedmont City Council meeting would appear the same night, or the next day or, at worst, the day after that. And this is a story about, more or less, the city council meeting of April 16, 2012.

More specifically, about a report on that night's agenda: an advance copy of the city’s Sewer Asset Management Implementation Plan prepared in response to EPA Stipulated Order Compliance Requirement, Section XI, Subsection 73, a dandy 43-page document, nicknamed AMIP, that you can read for yourself here.

It's an important document, in the sense that roughly 40 percent of Piedmont's sanitary sewers (the ones that connect to your household plumbing) are very old and not in the best of health.

It's also important because the East Bay Municipal District (EBMUD) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) really, really want Piedmont and a half dozen other East Bay cities to get those old sewers replaced, rehabilitated or otherwise fixed up so nothing leaks in (like water in a rainstorm) and nothing leaks out (like ... use your imagination).

If this sounds familiar, it's because the same issue was at the heart of Measure A, the sewer tax surcharge that Piedmont voters rejected in the Feb. 7, 2012 election.

The election is over, but the elderly sewer lines are still there, and that's why Chester Nakahara, the city's director of public works, and his staff prepared the plan with the unwieldly name. As Nakahara said in introducing the plan, "Now that we don't have a program ..."

Here's what I know about sanitary sewers: (1) you try the old-fashioned rubber plunger in hopes of staving off (2) calling Roto-Rooter, in hopes of staving off (3) replacing a clean-out on a slope with one on flat land that a plumber will charge a ridiculous amount of money for.

So I set out to read the plan, carefully and in its entirety. I got stuck on page 17. And by page 17, I had learned some tidbits about Piedmont's sanitary sewer system.

It contains roughly 50 miles of pipeline. It was mostly built between 1900 and 1940. About 60 percent of the system, or approximately 30 miles of pipe, has already been rehabbed. City workers spend a fair amount of time looking for problems inside the sewer lines via closed-circuit TV, which is probably not all that entertaining. There's a master map of the whole system posted on a wall at the city's Corporation Yard.

But by page 17, I hadn't gotten to the part about fixing up the 20 miles or so of pipeline that still need fixing. (Confession: I still haven't. There always seems to be something more urgent to do.)

So it was a relief when two Piedmont residents, Tom Clark (who clearly has considerable expertise in the subject) and Rick Schiller (who wrote the argument against Measure A on the February ballot) both told the city council that three days — the period that the document was available for public study before the April 16 council meeting — was not enough time to review the plan properly.

Next time — an updated version of the plan will come back to the city council at its first meeting in June — it would be helpful if the document were released earlier, they suggested.

Meanwhile, Piedmont Civic Association published an article on its website Saturday called Sewers: Straightening Out the Confusion. PCA describes the article this way: "In the interest of creating a shared factual basis within the community on sewer issues, excerpts from the Piedmont Post article of February 15, 2012 are followed by facts."

Clearly the issue is both complicated and controversial. Clearly it's going to be expensive to rehab or replace the aging sewers. (Just how expensive, how it will be financed and soon the work needs to be done are the major issues at this point.) And clearly I am not the person who's going to make it all make sense to Piedmont residents. I'm not even sure I will finish the current AMIP document before the next one comes out.

* The quotation at the top of this article isn't especially relevant, but really good quotes about sanitary sewers are hard to find. The quote is from one of Franco's officers in the Spanish Civil War and refers to the high death rate from cholera before modern sewer systems were installed in some of Spain's major cities.

The full quote reads, "Had we no sewers in Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao, all these Red leaders would have died in their infancy instead of exciting the rabble and causing good Spanish blood to flow. When the war is over, we should destroy the sewers."

Thoughts, questions, facts about Piedmont's sanitary sewer quandary? Please add them in the comments section below.










Astrid Lacitis April 30, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Normally reading about sewers is not a priority for me, but your quote intrigued me. And I loved the full quote at the end of the article- it is priceless! Astrid Lacitis
garrett Keating April 30, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Dixie - thanks for the levity. The Sewer Program and Piedmont's obligations under the Standing Order are complicated and you will need to have a sense of humor as you "wade" into it. And just to clarify, I'm sure you are not suggesting that Tom Clark and Rick Schiller are "Red Leaders". Rather than excite, I think they have provided useful analysis of the program.
Dixie Jordan (Editor) April 30, 2012 at 04:12 PM
I agree - I'd be even more bewildered without their commentary.
Laurence Gabie April 30, 2012 at 04:52 PM
If you have access to old city council meetings and related newspaper articles, you will find that the city has consistently told us that they were "on schedule and on budget" to complete the rehab of the old sewer lines. Until now. What happened? The new rules seem to only require additional testing, not additional replacement of the sewer lines. We already have the fixed costs of city employees and their ongoing work to inspect the sewer lines (which they claim to have been doing "religiously"). So we have the employees and the equipment to do this additional testing. There is no good reason to levy additional taxes to do this work. It looks like they just want to buy a half- million dollar new truck and want the flexibility to spend the money the assessment would have provided in any way they sew fit. Ask the city what happened to their claim of being on time and on budget prior to this last election.
Rick Schiller April 30, 2012 at 07:09 PM
One fundamental reason I opposed Measure A was the City insisting that "we must comply with the 2011 EPA order requiring additional rehabilitation." Beyond my careful reading of the 2011 SO and Tom Clark’s expert examination, I obtained written verification from the EPA before writing the opposition ballot argument: “The SO does not specify a deadline by which Piedmont must complete the mainline sewer replacement work, nor is there a stipulation for penalties to be assessed against Piedmont if they fail to replace or repair a certain length of pipe each year” (M. Moustakas, EPA Compliance Officer). The City’s position is directly contradicted by the 2011 EPA Stipulated Order ("SO"). The AMIP is due for EBMUD review by June 15, 2012 and EPA review by July 15. The AMIP must include a ten-year plan including finances. The one option given by staff to the 2011 MTRC was that the City had to complete mainline replacement in the ten year period and this would have become legally binding after July 15, 2012. This single option was given to the MTRC by City staff many months before the Measure A election and more than a year before the AMIP was due. The City assumed the normally tax tolerant Piedmont electorate would pass the tax and that the MTRC would not examine the complex issues or review the lengthy legal documents. Ryan Gilbert, half of the sewer sub-committee, later reversed his support of Measure A when presented with the facts.
Rick Schiller April 30, 2012 at 07:09 PM
Beyond the various compliance issues of testing, monitoring, repair and reasonable mainline replacment required in the AMIP, the City attempted to create a legal obligation that would force a tax upon us by putting accelerated mainline replacement in the plan nearly a year before it was due. To this day the City still insists accelerated mainline replacement is a "legal obligation;" it is not unless the City creates it after June 15, 2012. Echoing my campaign statements, the most recent Piedmontcivic.org material shows that the City has several options under the current sewer tax of replacing the mainline sewer while remaining in full EPA compliance. The City can implement one of these plans and avoid another divisive election. The time for candor is upon us.
Rick Schiller April 30, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Laurence is correct. The City now states Measure A was to pay for the new EPA compliance requirements. All compliance issues can be met, as well as mainline replacement at a measured pace, under the existing sewer Tax. I suggest reviewing: http://www.piedmontcivic.org/2012/04/28/sewers-straightening-out-the-confusion/#F8 and especially #12. We have several good options that do not require further taxes.


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