What should my city be doing to prevent sewer backups?

“The sewer is backing up into my house…” “Grab the towels and a bucket!”

“Call the water department, maybe they can help!” “This smell is awful!”

Expletives fly, panic sinks in, and moving into a hotel seems like the only way to escape the nightmare. If this has happened to you, you are not alone. Fortunately, there is a path to reclaiming your home and your peace of mind. It is called the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act. 1 The “GTCA” was created by, you guessed it, the Oklahoma government in order to “(1) to promote prompt investigations, (2) to provide early opportunity for correction of dangerous conditions, (3) to promote speedy and amicable settlements of claims and (4) to permit the governmental entity to prepare for fiscal consequences.” 2 Sounds good, right?

As we all know, dealing with any government comes with obstacles. The GTCA is no different, but Buxton Law Group has been navigating through these hurdles on behalf of our clients for over a decade. This article explains some of the ways a municipality can prevent their sewer system from backing up and flooding homes and businesses before a problem arises. This should not serve as legal advice, but as a general guide for sewer backup victims. For more in-depth information or for a case review, contact our office or send an email to logan@buxtonlawgroup.com.

“What should my city be doing to prevent sewer backups?”
The modern sanitary sewer system is far from bullet-proof.

Preventative Maintenance and Monitoring

Preventative maintenance is exactly what it sounds like: performing maintenance to prevent backups from occurring. This maintenance should not be done repeatedly and far in advance of any warning signs of a potential backup. The DEQ tells operators in their training manual that a good preventative maintenance can prevent up to 85% of sanitary sewer blockages. Sadly, most municipalities do not have a preventative maintenance program in place. This creates what is called responsive or reactive maintenance at best and a system with problems that the operator cannot keep up with.

1 51 O.S. §§ 151 et al.
2 Calvert v. Tulsa Pub. Schools, Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 1 of Tulsa County, 1996 OK 106, ¶ 19.

So, what goes into a preventative maintenance program? At its most basic, it requires operators to maintain an accurate map of the sewer system and create a schedule for monitoring the system. The term “popping manhole lids” gets thrown around a lot by operators, but do they really have a deliberate and methodical approach to the practice? Popping lids refers to the act of physically opening manhole lids in the sewer system to monitor flow. If one manhole is virtually empty, or “dry”, and the next manhole upstream is full, that is a clear indication that a line is blocked. Knowing what the normal flow rate looks like through repetition and familiarity with the system helps operators anticipate problems and resolve them before it’s too late. This cannot be a sporadic function of the municipal sewer workers; there must be a schedule where operators and their staff check every manhole in the system within a certain period of time, and more frequently in problematic areas.

Another way to monitor flow is at lift stations and at the lagoon or sewer plant, the “end of the line” so to speak. Lift stations are essentially sewer pumps that push sewage through the system where gravity alone is insufficient to do the job. At the plant, operators are tasked with treating the raw sewage so that it is free of harmful bacteria, parasites and viruses that can cause physical illness and environmental damage. Both the lift stations and the sewer plant should have functional flow monitors to accurately measure the amount of sewage coming through the lines and the rate of the flow. This can be tracked over time to reveal normal operating levels depending on the time of day or even time of year. Coupled with historical data, operators should be analyzing flow to see if there is a spike or drop in the amount and rate of sewage at a particular flow monitor, which is indicative of a possible problem.

Doing these little things can show sewer operators where the problematic areas in their system are. Armed with that knowledge, operators should set up a mechanical or chemical treatment schedule to counteract whatever issues are most common. For a list of those common issues, check out our recent article entitled “What causes a sewer backup anyway?” This is not to say that the entire system doesn’t need to be mechanically or chemically treated on regular basis, but problematic areas must be vigilantly treated. If there is no schedule to perform this type of maintenance in your municipality, you are tied to a sewer system that is destined for failure.

Municipalities should also have a replacement schedule, similar to a business accounting for depreciation of their assets. The sewer system is an asset of the municipality, and it will not last forever. Main lines have a life expectancy based upon manufacturers’ data and local environmental and usage data. That must be accounted for, with funds set aside to replace a main line at the end of its life expectancy. The same thing goes for every facet of the sewer system, such as pumps and equipment used to clean the lines like jet rodders.

Sanitary Sewer Evaluation Studies (SSES)

Municipalities need to know the integrity of their sanitary sewer system. Without that knowledge, they cannot adequately maintain the system and keep up with an infrastructure that is not designed to be self-sufficient. With advances in technology, there are many ways that a municipal sewer operator can test the integrity and function of the system and implement changes as needed. The simplest method of testing is a dye test, where colored dyes are introduced into one manhole, while other employee(s) monitor the manhole(s) downstream. This can be timed with a stopwatch to measure flow rate and, if the dye does not make it down the line, indicates a problem such as a blockage or crack in the line.

Smoke studies are another common version of an SSES. Smaller municipalities can get discounted or even free smoke studies from the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. Smoke studies are performed by blowing smoke into a manhole and watching to see where the smoke comes out. If smoke comes out of the ground in the general area where the line is buried, it shows that there are cracks in the main lines that allowed the smoke to escape (because smoke rises) and permeate through the soil to the surface. This is a clear indication of inflow and infiltration.

Cameras are another tool that municipal sewer operators should use to analyze the integrity of their system. These cameras come in all sizes and can be manually forced through the pipes or propelled by electric wheels or tracks like a remote-controlled toy car. Video evidence of blockages, cracks or other issues help operators visualize the problem so they can adequately address it. Many plumbing companies in Oklahoma offer some form of camera work to municipalities, and some government entities or their insurance companies offer grants to pay for the cost. Unfortunately, most municipal sewer operators don’t have a schedule for videoing lines in their system. Instead, they wait for a problem before sending in the camera, which could have already caused a sewer backup.

Finally, sewer operators should utilize the “SL-RAT” or Sewer Line-Rapid Assessment Tool. This little piece of technology works as an acoustic transmitter. One piece of the SL-RAT sends an acoustic signal, from inside a manhole, to another transmitter at the next manhole. The tool locates the particular section of line being studied with GPS and maps it for operators to review later. It also generates a score, from zero to ten, for how constricted or blocked the line is. A “zero score” means that no acoustic signal could reach the receiving transmitter, indicating a completely blocked line. This tool, as named, produces rapid results, some in as little as a few minutes. There is at least one municipal insurance group in Oklahoma that owns SL-RAT equipment, which is available to their insureds for free.

Oklahoma Sewer Lawyers has represented sewer backup victims for more than a decade. Our knowledge of the GTCA, our trial experience and expertise, and our comprehensive understanding of sanitary sewer systems allows us to provide our clients with aggressive representation that is second to none. If you find yourself in need of legal representation for a sewer backup matter, we are happy to discuss and review your case without charge.

For more information, check out some of our other articles on sewer backup litigation or give us a call. We’re here to help.