Sewer Laterals —Who’s Responsible?

A woman, let’s call her Dawn, purchased a house in Alameda several years ago. Alameda building codes require that the sewer lateral from a house for sale be tested before the property can be sold. She was told that the lateral was replaced. Yet soon after moving in, her plumbing problems began, including instances of water forcefully backing up into the sink. For several years, she spent thousands of dollars on plumbing, Roto-Rooting and related services.

Finally fed up, Dawn contacted a local plumber who said that the lateral had been replaced and was working fine, as far as city plumbing codes went. The problem was in the pipe beneath her property. Using a video camera, the plumber ascertained that the line was in need of repair, and gave her a bid of $7,000.

Doing a little investigation, Dawn contacted Alameda’s Building Services Department. An inspector surveyed the damage, and told her the city would do the work for her. For free.

So if you’re selling a home, or simply having plumbing issues, how can you tell who is responsible for the pipes?

Know your laterals

Matt Naclerio, public works director, offered some clarity on the matter. He said that 10 or 15 years ago, EBMUD sewage treatment facilities were being overwhelmed during the rainy season. Weather water seeped into old, cracked East Bay sewer systems, inundating treatment facilities. Several East Bay cities were placed under an injunction to reduce the amount of rain water entering private sewers.

Building codes were modified to help stop the storm water inundation. According to Naclerio, the code says that when a home is sold, the lateral to the property shall be tested for infiltration, and with a city plumbing inspector as witness. The testing doesn’t involve a visual inspection of the lateral, so the physical pipe is not dug up. If the lateral doesn’t pass, the city will repair it.

However, sewer laterals are divided into two sections. The lower lateral is usually found between the sewer main and the property line, usually near the Kelly drain.

This portion of the lateral is the city’s responsibility. The upper main, the part that runs from approximately the edge of the sidewalk to the house, is the responsibility of the owner.

In Dawn’s case, there was an exception to this general rule. A city tree’s roots were found to be the cause of the damage to the lateral.

According to Tim Higares, code enforcement officer for the city, if a city tree or something the city has done has caused damage to a sewer lateral, the city will do the repair.

Shared laterals

There are many cases in Alameda where sewer laterals are shared by two or more property owners. The question of responsibility gets a little cloudier in this instance. According to city building codes, if a house with a shared lateral is sold, that lateral must be tested.

If found to be damaged, the lateral not only needs to be repaired, but separate laterals, both upper and lower must be put in (at the seller’scost) to be code-compliant.

The exception to this rule is if the shared lateral is located on an easement, but this is a very rare case in Alameda. But if there is a sewer problem when properties in question are not on the market, who’s responsible then? According to Building Official Greg McFann, the matter becomes a civil one. If neighbors cannot agree, then the dispute could end up in court.

As for Dawn’s dilemma about nearly paying a $7,000 bill for plumbing, city departments aren’t aware what plumbing contractors know about the city’s responsibilities regarding trees and private sewer laterals.

If you suspect that roots from a street tree may be causing your sewer problems, call the Building Services department at 747-6800.


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