The storm drain's connected to the — sewer line?

East Medford homeowners who were surprised to learn their sewer lines were mistakenly connected to the city's storm-drain system when their houses were built might take some comfort in knowing the problem is not unique to Medford. Unfortunately, that won't help them pay for the necessary repairs.

In a perfect world, the city should pick up the tab for correcting what should have been a no-brainer of a plumbing job. Unfortunately, reality is seldom perfect.

Since 2000, Medford city officials have found 19 homes with incorrect connections. The problem typically comes to light when workers remove manhole covers from storm drains to find raw sewage where it should not be.

It seems sewer lines and storm-drain lines are easy to confuse, being constructed of white PVC pipe of the same size, frequently laid in the same trench.

When the pipes are connected wrong, not only does raw sewage flow directly into local waterways — Lazy Creek, in the most recently discovered cases — but storm water flowing into the sewer system is a problem, too. Too much storm water overtaxes the treatment system, using more energy and materials than should be necessary for a normal volume of sewage.

Alarming as the problem is, it's not widespread. Officials say more improper connections could be found in the future, but likely less than two a year on average. The cases identified so far amount to less than 1 percent of the 3,600 building permits issued since 2000.

City officials are focusing on making sure the problem doesn't happen in the future, which is the least they could do. Requiring different colored pipe apparently is too costly, but putting tape on the pipe to make sure it is correctly connected isn't. That ought to be required in city code.

City inspectors do check new construction projects, but not every detail. That's understandable, but when clean water rules are so stringent that homeowners are forbidden to install landscaping along stream banks, making sure raw sewage doesn't wind up in creeks ought to be a higher priority.

The responsibility for correct connections rightfully lies with the plumbing contractor who did the work, but if the original contractor can't be identified or has gone out of business, the homeowner is stuck with the bill.

That hardly seems fair, but it is consistent with other city policies, including homeowners being held responsible for tree roots under city sidewalks.

If it helps any, more than 60 homeowners in Seattle's Rainier Vista neighborhood are facing the same situation. Seattle officials say their inspections amount to reviewing plans, and contractors are responsible for any problems — unless they have gone out of business, in which case the homeowner is responsible.

"I feel like Homer Simpson put in my plumbing," one Seattle homeowner said.


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