What stinks for Syracuse families: Sewage floods 4,000 basements a year
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – There’s a city where raw sewage spills into private homes and businesses, on average, 12 times a day. In 2018, city workers were dispatched to deal with 4,389 sewage backups in basements.
That city is not in a developing country. It’s Syracuse.
Each year, Syracuse logs more than 4,000 sewage backups, according to a review by syracuse.com of city records for the past five years.
Every incident is “horrifying’’ to residents. Yet no Syracuse mayor has mounted a sewer improvement campaign to tackle the problem. The cash-strapped city has been slow even to study the issue.
Syracuse is not alone. The crisis is shared by cities across the United States, experts say.
Sewage backups are common, especially in Eastern U.S. cities with aging infrastructure, said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
It’s something policymakers and the public need to pay more attention to, he said.
“If you’re flushing your toilet and suddenly it’s showing up in your basement, that’s a crisis – much more so than potholes on your street or not having power,’’ Gardner-Andrews said.
Sewage backups bring the risk of illness, the ordeal of cleaning up and the cost of throwing out ruined belongings. They also make it less inviting to live in a city struggling to hold onto families.
“It is horrifying,’’ said Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon. He has personal experience, having dealt with sewage in the basement of a Syracuse property he rents out.
Instead of solutions, what has evolved in Syracuse is an emergency response service: The city assigns six employees to respond to backups during the week. They will plunge a resident’s floor drain or the vent pipe in the yard in an effort to clear the blockage. Two workers answer the calls on holidays and weekends.
That’s an extraordinary level of service, Gardner-Andrews said. Most cities would tell residents to call a private plumber first.
Mayor Ben Walsh, who took office one year ago, said his administration repairs and replaces as many old sewers as possible. Asked what more can be done specifically to prevent sewage backups, Walsh said he needs to study the issue more closely before deciding on a course of action.
“Anytime a resident has sewage in their basement, that’s a problem,’’ Walsh said. “The context of the problem is something, frankly, that we’re still getting an understanding of.’’
Sewage backs up for a variety of reasons.
Many basement backups, possibly most, could be prevented if people would stop dumping grease, diaper wipes and other clog-forming items down the drain or the toilet, Syracuse officials say. City and county officials try to educate residents not to dump “FOG’’ – fats, oils and grease – down the drain.
But cracks and leaks in the aging Syracuse sewer system also create conditions that push sewage into basements. Across much of the city, the sewer mains beneath the streets -- and the household pipes that feed them -- are a century old.
Cracks let in rain and groundwater that can overload the pipes, sometimes sending sewage back into buildings. The problem is exacerbated in the oldest neighborhoods, where the 19th century system was designed to combine storm water with sanitary waste.
But it’s not just the city’s pipes that are old. Many of the pipes that need fixing are privately owned.
Syracuse officials estimate that three out of four sewage backups result from blockages in the private service lateral, the pipe that carries waste from the building to the public main below the street. That pipe is the homeowner’s responsibility.
Still, that leaves an estimated 1,000 sewage backups caused by city-owned infrastructure every year. Fixing that would be expensive.
Onondaga County Executive McMahon has proposed a countywide program to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into local sewer repairs, in Syracuse and its suburbs. The money would plug leaks that allow excess water to flood the system and send sewage overflows into creeks.
Those big projects could also cut down on sewage spilling into basements, especially during heavy rains, said Vince Esposito, who retired as Syracuse sewer superintendent and now advises the city.
For now, however, the city barely has enough money to maintain the existing sewers, Esposito said.
“The older a system gets, the more problems you’re going to have. It’s inevitable,’’ Esposito said. “And we’re having a difficult time keeping up with that. We just can’t keep up with replacement or lining of these sewers as fast as the problems are occurring. It costs a lot of money. Bottom line is, it costs a lot of money.”
Misse Ross stopped short after going downstairs to her basement to do laundry. A shallow pool of dirty water and feces covered part of the floor.
She immediately knew what had happened. Her sewer line had backed up.
Ross had experienced a backup once before, about six years ago. Her neighbor has had similar problems. So have other residents down the street. Her house on Coral Avenue, at the northern edge of the Valley neighborhood, is near the city’s worst concentration of sewage backups.
t was President’s Day when Ross discovered the sewage in her basement. She called the Syracuse public works department, but nobody picked up. The office was empty because of the holiday.
Desperate, Ross called a city councilor she knows, Joe Driscoll, who helped her locate a city crew to free up her household lateral. From the vent in her yard, they used a plunger to break up what sounded like ice in the line, Ross said.
“It sounded like a slushie machine,’’ she said.
She spent the rest of the day cleaning up.
“There was probably a good inch (of water),’’ at the low end of the floor, she said. “And it comes with -- feces and everything else is in there as well. It’s quite a mess. I spent a lot of time this afternoon with the Clorox and such.’’
Some homeowners hire cleanup firms. Ross tackled the job herself.
“I kind of piled up all the yuck with the mop and collected that in a trash bag and threw that out,’’ she said. “And then I put all the water back down the hole as much as I could with the mop.’’
In some cities, Ross would have been forced to pay a plumber. Syracuse crews will plunge or flush a homeowner’s vent or basement drain if a resident has sewage in the basement, up to twice a year. In some municipalities, city crews only work on the public mains under the street.
Mayor Walsh said he will consider whether Syracuse should cut down on the number of sewage backup calls answered by city crews, because many problems begin in private pipes. Before making any changes, however, “we need to have a better understanding of the data,’’ he said.
Ross, a community activist who plans to run for county legislator, said the issue is so widespread that the city should do more preventive work on both public mains and private laterals. If that means higher sewer fees, so be it, she said.
Leaving the problem to private homeowners is not going to solve it, she said. Too often, homeowners in some neighborhoods will abandon their property if faced with a large expense like replacing a service lateral, she said.
“As a city, sometimes we just have to come together and say it doesn’t really even matter whose fault it is -- when it starts impacting everybody,’’ she said.
Some U.S. cities assist homeowners by offering voluntary sewer lateral repair programs, which are like insurance policies, Gardner-Andrews said.
In return for a monthly fee of $9, for example, the city of Rock Island, Ill., will cover the cost of repairing a failed household lateral, up to $12,000. The program does not cover the cost of unclogging the pipe. Residents must pay a plumber for that. If the pipe cannot be reopened by the plumber, the city will replace it for free.
In the summer of 2015, following unusually heavy rain storms, dozens of residents in the Eastwood neighborhood complained loudly after their basements flooded with sewage.
More than 200 angry neighbors attended a meeting of the Eastwood Neighborhood Association where city officials listened to complaints, said Nader Maroun, a former city councilor. But nothing changed.
In response to the Eastwood hubbub, Syracuse sought and received a $50,000 state grant in 2016 to study possible improvements to the sewers in Eastwood and neighboring Sedgwick.
Walsh said he asked his staff to begin the study a few months after he took office as mayor in January 2018. He said he did not know why the study had languished before then. Engineering contractor C&S Cos. is expected to complete the report sometime next summer.
Minch Lewis, a committee chairman of the Eastwood association and a former city auditor, said residents have been waiting for some assurance that the next massive rain storm won’t bring the same mayhem.
That assurance is unlikely, even after the study is complete, Esposito said. Engineers might make improvements on a particular block, but solving the overall sewer capacity issues in Eastwood would require rebuilding the system from top to bottom, he said.
Much of Eastwood is served by small mains, just eight inches in diameter, that are prone to getting inundated during wet weather.
“You can’t design a sewer system big enough to handle the biggest storms,’’ he said.
Lewis was among the victims in Eastwood. His finished basement on Rigi Avenue, which features a bar, pool table and piano, was swamped with more than a foot of sewage in 2015.
It was the third sewage backup at his house in five years, he said.
The messes were not covered by standard homeowners’ insurance, he said. After the first backup, Lewis purchased a special insurance rider to cover damage from sewage backups. He submitted claims of roughly $3,000 and $5,000 for the subsequent episodes.
He lost a water heater, carpeting and other furnishings, he said. His plasterboard walls had to be cut away to remove mold.
In addition to the cleanup costs, Lewis invested $7,000 in home improvements to protect his basement. He installed two new sump pumps and a backwater valve in his floor drain that is supposed to prevent water from flowing back into the house.
Homeowners who are concerned about potential sewage backups should ask their agent about adding an endorsement to their home insurance policy that specifically protects against backups. Typically, that costs about $50 a year for $5,000 of coverage, said John FitzGibbons, owner of the FitzGibbons and Huntington insurance agencies.But repeated claims may raise the cost substantially. Lewis said he dropped his backup insurance after his second big claim because the premiums rose too high.
“You have two claims and you don’t have a third,’’ he said.
Syracuse is hardly the only place with sewage backups. Low lying suburban neighborhoods in DeWitt, Salina and elsewhere have been prone to persistent problems. Other Upstate cities also report hundreds of sewage backups each year.
The number of sewage backups in Syracuse is not “that uncommon’’ compared with other cities, said Gardner-Andrews, of NACWA.
Jeremy Wolfe, operations manager at Servpro, said his company has cleaned up sewage-soiled basements all over Central New York. The cost starts at about $250 and can reach $10,000, depending on the severity of damage, Wolfe said.
Fifteen years ago, when he owned a house in Syracuse, Wolfe was forced to replace the 100-year-old service lateral at the house. The job cost $6,000, or roughly $8,000 in today’s dollars.
The Greater Syracuse Land Bank, which acquires tax delinquent properties from the city, frequently encounters problems in the sewer laterals of houses it takes over, said Katelyn Wright, executive director.
Often the problem can be resolved, at least temporarily, by hiring a plumber to run a cable through the lateral to break up any roots or debris, Wright said. But recently the Land Bank was forced to replace the sewer lateral at a 119-year-old two-family house on Kirk Avenue, just off Midland.
The cost was $7,200.The problem of sewage backups is likely to grow worse as aging pipes continue to decay, experts say. Climate change could be a factor, too, because massive storms that flood sewer systems seem to occur more frequently, Esposito said.
Preparing old sewer systems for the future will be expensive, but it’s critical to public health, Gardner-Andrews said. At some point, Americans will have to pay more for their sewers.
“One of the real challenges, at the national level and even at the local level, is how to get the importance of this infrastructure -- and the cost associated with it -- front and center in people’s minds,’’ he said.