Water utilities are increasingly turning their attention to a part of the system that, well, they don't actually own: the private pipes that connect houses and buildings to the sewer system. In many cases, these pipes -- called "laterals" -- are old and leaky and cause big problems, such as sinkholes and overflows of sewage into rivers.

The focus on these pipes comes as utilities are struggling to reduce costs and comply with federal clean water mandates, said Amanda Waters, the general counsel and director of public affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. But the idea of fixing private property for the public good can be dicey, so utilities have had to fashion approaches that are both financially feasible and politically possible.

So far, those approaches run the gamut from a program in the Cincinnati area that helps owners cover the costs of repairing the part of their laterals that runs beneath city streets, to one in Oakland, Calif., that requires property owners to get their laterals tested when they sell or significantly remodel their properties, and if the laterals don't pass muster, pay for repairs.

"You may privately own [a lateral], but if it's leaky or cracked, then you are contributing flow that shouldn't be there to the system," Waters said. "In the end, the public pays for it; it's a community problem."

Indeed, leaky pipes can result in untreated sewage "overflowing" the pipes and leading to pollution and other potential health hazards. In addition, groundwater seeping into the pipes can overload the sewer system or, at least, make water treatment plants treat more water than they need to, which increases costs for ratepayers. This is what's known in the industry as infiltration and inflow, which significantly adds to the amount of water handled by the sewage systems.

On top of faulty laterals, excess water comes in when people illegally hook up downspouts and sump pumps to channel rain water into sewer lines; or when the main sewer lines themselves are damaged and allow more run off in. In the Pittsburgh area, 40 percent of the water sent to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's water treatment plant comes from infiltration and inflow during dry water. When it rains, the rate rises to 60 percent.


Jim Good, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), said the agency is targeting laterals because Pittsburgh, like many cities, is under a consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that requires major construction to reduce the pollution that gets into the area's rivers.

"If those [lateral] lines aren't adjusted as well," Good said, "you find yourself in a situation where you spend millions -- maybe even billions of dollars -- to make the sewer system more water tight. But if you haven't addressed the private laterals, it's all for naught."

Pittsburgh, a city of 305,000 residents, has 100,000 private sewer hook-ups. Although, individually, the laterals are an average of 42 feet long, together they make up 750 miles of pipe, more than half the length of the 1,300 miles of sewer pipes owned by the PWSA. The agency has made lateral repair a major priority. It has been pushing legislation in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would let the water utility repair damaged laterals that owners won't fix on their own. Under the proposed law, the agency could recoup the cost of the repair by either charging the owner and/or cutting off the owner's service. The matter is still moving through the legislature, but no one has opposed it so far.

The EPA often requires wastewater agencies to address laterals as part of those consent decrees. "While EPA's consent decrees do not directly require homeowners and businesses to address private laterals, they do require cities to have programs to address problems with private laterals," said an EPA spokesperson, who declined to be identified by name.

It's not just federal oversight that's prompted agencies to focus on laterals, though. A sanitation district in Northern Kentucky, for example, started offering assistance for property owners because damaged laterals were causing sinkholes in city roads. Many water utilities are also looking at ways to divert or slow down rainwater from stormwater systems. They're using "green infrastructure," such as rain gardens, cisterns, permeable pavements, and other devices for filtering and absorbing stormwater.

Andy Lukas, a vice president with the environmental consulting firm Brown and Caldwell, cautions that utilities should thoroughly research where, specifically, water is entering their system through laterals. The utilities should focus on where their intervention -- and what kind of intervention -- will make the biggest difference.

"At some point somebody's going to ask the question: How does this help? Was this a good investment?" Lukas said. "They should ask those questions. You should be prepared to provide that answer."