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Media Coverage
Wading Into Sewer Woes
February 28, 1999



Sunday, February 28, 1999
Section: West County
Page: A29
Shawn Masten

Caption: Photo. Paula Morgan surveys the basement of her home, which fills with water whenever it rains. Photo 2. Sewage covers the back yard of Morgan's home on Bayview Avenue in the Richmond Annex after a particularly heavy rainfall in early February. (Mark DuFrene/Times). Breakout box 1. Recommended single-family sewer rate increases at bottom of text. Breakout box 2. Town Hall meeting information, call 510-412-2011.

RICHMOND Every winter, the sewer backs up, and Paula Morgan is forced to live with a back yard full of fetid water, soiled toilet paper, feces and condoms.

"It's just amazing to me that the city allows this," said Morgan, who lives on Bayview Avenue in the Richmond Annex. "This is horrible situation. It really is humiliating. I really at some level try not to deal with it because it's just such a disgusting thing to have to live with."

Morgan's story is common in Richmond.

The sewer system - one of the most basic necessities the city provides - is old, obsolete and overburdened. Aging, undersized and broken pipes clog and overflow whenever there's a hard rain. Sewer maintenance workers spend much of their time responding to residents' complaints about slow drains and raw-sewage spills.

Richmond's sewer system has been allowed to deteriorate no major repairs were planned or done for years. The system, officials acknowledge, needs a complete overhaul. Raw sewage floods homes and properties 50 or 60 times a year, they said. But any solution will be expensive: Replacing every pipe would cost the city at least $240 million, city officials said, and Richmond doesn't have the money.

They are hoping to build support for a rate increase to pay for some of the repairs, and they are starting public meetings to educate the public on the need for repairs. But it's a tricky political issue, and state law prohibits the city from adopting a rate increase if a majority of property owners protest.

The problems are citywide, and sewer crews have been called to all 39 neighborhoods to respond to backups:

* Rain-gorged sewers caused toilets to back up so often at the Weber building, 3431 Macdonald Ave., that Contra Costa County decided to find new offices for the workers it housed there. People were traipsing through sewage, an employee said at the time. They had to put portable toilets in the parking lot, a move that didn't please the building's 25 or so workers.

* Peggy Makowski filed a $9,475 claim against the city in 1996 for flooding her Point Richmond cottage with 10 inches of sewage. Her bed, most of her clothes and much of belongings were soaked with putrid waste, she said.

"It is impossible to appraise the peace of mind lost from living day to day in the image of my sewage soaked home," Makowski wrote in her claim.

* Red's Seafood Restaurant, at 2207 Macdonald Ave., was closed for three days after the owners, Leroy "Woody" Woods and Charles Woods came to work one November day in 1997 and found the place filled with sewage. "The sewer backed up after it rained, Leroy Woods said. "We had to close up because the floor was covered. It took three days to clean up. It was pretty gross."

* Raw-sewage spills caused by broken lines twice have closed Kellers Beach, where an underground pump station handles all the waste from the 1,523 houses in Point Richmond and Brickyard Cove. In one instance, more than 1,000 gallons of raw sewage was spilled. Warning signs were posted on the beach, and the San Francisco Regional Water Board was notified, but the city wasn't fined.

A Times review of records found that 77 claims have been filed against the city since 1994 by residents seeking compensation for damages to personal belongings and property because of sewage spills in their homes and on their property. Staff from the city's risk management department did not respond to a Times Public Records Act request for the total amount the city has spent on those claims. The Times made the request on Feb. 10.

Specific neighborhoods

Most of the claims were filed by residents of East Richmond, North and East, Pullman, Richmore Village, Park Plaza and Iron Triangle neighborhoods.

City officials said the areas where the city seems to get the most complaints are along the Richmond and San Pablo border, the Iron Triangle and Atchison Village.

"Most of the village has a problem with the sewers backing up," said Neda DiForrest, a 14-year resident and vice president of the Atchison Village Neighborhood Council. "It's not only one or two homes. There's a lot. We're really concerned."

Richmond's sewer system moves waste through an intricate 300-mile network of narrow clay pipes and pump stations to the Water Pollution Control Plant for treatment and discharge into the Bay. Most of the pipes date to the late 1950s. They serve 20,000 homes and about 100 commercial and industrial users. On summer days, 7 million gallons of waste water move through the system; 40 million gallons move during the rainy season.

Ratepayers finance the $5.7 million it takes to operate the system and pay the salaries of the department's 45 employees.

"It's a system that most people take for granted," said Don Austin, public works superintendent. "They take for granted that when they flush the toilet the water is going to disappear. When that water stops disappearing they get very upset."

Sewer systems are antiquated and crumbling in cities throughout the state. But in many places, property owners are paying for the multimillion-dollar repair jobs.

"Everybody else's system is the same age," said Michael Teitz, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California. "But everyone else is doing repairs and replacement."

Richmond, however, has set nothing aside for capital improvements, like sewer repairs, and the City Council has been reluctant to raise sewer fees to pay for work. The last time sewer rates were raised was five years ago to pay for about $7 million in repairs to the treatment plant.

Low rates
At $166 a year, residents pay some of the lowest sewer rates in the Bay Area. In nearby Berkeley and Vallejo, residents pay as much as $300 a year. Benicia charges $252 a year, and voters passed a $30 million bond to finance repairs.

Richmond officials are hoping to target the lines that cause the most problems and to make some repairs at the sewer plant. The cost is estimated at $50 million, Austin said.

There's little doubt customers will be asked to pitch in for the bill. A 46 percent increase over the next 10 years has been recommended. The City Council is expected to answer the question of how the money will be raised in June.

"I think we have to do something, the question is how," Mayor Rosemary Corbin said. "We're obviously interested in complying with regulations and maintaining our infrastructure. We also interested in keeping our rates as low as possible."

Councilman Tom Butt has firsthand knowledge of the system's problems. His Point Richmond home sits upwind from the treatment plant, and his investigation of a foul odor coming from the plant helped raise the issue to the forefront.

"Everybody's been benefiting from artificially low rates because nobody's tended to business," Butt said. "We should have been raising rates steadily over the years and built up reserves for the future. Now we'll have to do a fairly significant rate increase."

City officials will try to sell the rate increases during town hall meetings over the next several weeks. The hope is to avoid protests. Under state law, if a majority of property owners protest, the city cannot increase rates.

The council considered increasing rates in June, but the idea was dropped when business owners complained that new rates should be proportional to use.

Property owners' role
"It's an opportunity to candidly and truthfully tell our residents what this proposal is all about," City Manager Isiah Turner said. "Our system is broke, and it needs fixing."

But even with rate increases, some of the problems won't be fixed, and in some cases, property owners must care for the lines. Laterals, the lines that carry waste water from a home to the sewer system, are the property owner's responsibility to replace and repair.

"If a homeowner's lateral is in bad shape, you're going to get sewer water coming under your property," Austin said. Faulty laterals were to blame for one of the two raw sewage spills on Kellers Beach last year, he said.

And common sense plays a role. Residents shouldn't dump grease down the drains or use the system when it's clear that it is broken, public works officials said.

"Most backups occur when people continue to use the system when it's not functioning properly," Austin said.

The city's 10-member sewer crew spends much of its time trying to stay on top of the problems. Crews "spend a lot of time" repairing lines and using high-pressure water to clean pipes, said crew leader Fred Cortez, a 28-year Richmond employee. The crew gets about six calls a day from residents complaining about slow drains or sewage backups, Cortez said.

They are also asked to come to the scene to clean up spills when the city is at fault a task they don't relish.

"That's a very unpleasant job," Cortez said. "You're dealing with human waste directly. It's a health issue."

The only time workers go into the sewer is to retrieve broken manhole covers. "We want to work above ground," Cortez said. "There are rats and all kinds of unpleasant things down there."

Cortez and his crew have spent a lot of time in the back yard of Paula Morgan's Bayview Avenue home. Cortez and Morgan are on a first-name basis. He calls from home to check on her when it rains.

"(She) seems to feel singled out, but there's people all over town that have similar problems," Cortez said.

In June, Morgan filed a claim for $9,000 against the city for contaminating her back yard during spills over the last eight years. The city paid it, but the problem continues. Replacing the faulty line that's causing the problem would cost about $500,000, Austin said.

"My yard has deteriorated. I can't have any pets because I'm afraid they'll get sick. I'm afraid to have a gathering or party," she said.

Morgan said she doesn't relish the idea of seeing her rates increase for a service that should have been taken care of by the city all along.

"As a property owner I'm infuriated by having to pay them for what they should have been doing all along," Morgan said. "Now they're finally waking up and realizing that they've been ignoring the problem, or hiding it."

Recomended single-family sewer rate increases:

Current, $166

1999-00, $195

2000-01, $206

2001-02, $248

2002-03, $253

2003-04, $303

2004-05, $310