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East Bay Homeowners On The Hook For Costly Repairs To County Storm Drains

MARTINEZ (KPIX 5) -- An East Bay woman had no idea there was a large county storm drain pipe running under her property – until it started disintegrating. Water from the leaking pipe has left cracks and a sinkhole in her Pacheco backyard, and the ground around it is mushy.

"Essentially, the whole bottom part of this metal corrugated pipe is gone. It's just gone," Kelly O'Connell said.

But just as distressing to O'Connell was the response she received from Contra Costa County when she reported the problem. The County told her she is responsible for repairing the 65-year-old pipe that funnels storm water from her surrounding neighborhood to a nearby creek. And it wouldn't be an easy fix: the county told her she needed to hire a licensed contractor, get a drainage permit, and "perform the work to county standards."

"I was in shock," O'Connell told KPIX 5. "It's a huge undertaking."

And not a cheap one either.

O'Connell, who says she's had a hard time even finding a contractor willing to take the job, says she's received estimates of over $60,000 to replace the aging storm drain pipe.

"How can a private citizen possibly expected to do that? How can they?"

"These are private responsibilities," according to Contra Costa County Deputy Chief Engineer Mike Carlson.

He says while the county is responsible for maintaining pipes that run under county property, homeowners are responsible for maintaining portions of pipes that run under their properties, at least according to the county's interpretation of California Drainage Law.

Carlson provided this document summarizing California drainage law as his rationale.

"You're required to pass water, it doesn't matter whose water it came from, but to pass it from one side of your property to the other side," Carlson told KPIX 5.

Ian Wren, a staff scientist at Bay Keeper – a group concerned about water quality -- finds that response troubling.

"That they (Contra Costa) would say they are not responsible for maintaining that infrastructure does seem quite appalling," Wren says. "It's the reason people pay taxes and fees to counties to maintain these facilities."

But Contra Costa says there's simply not enough money to pay to repair pipes running under private property.

"There is no (funding) mechanism to maintain these pipes," Carlson says. "That's why we're in the problem that we are."

He believes the solution is creating a separate taxpayer-funded utility solely to deal with storm drain pipes.

And Carlson warns many other homeowners in the Bay Area could be facing their own problems with leaking pipes under or near their property.

"I'm guessing in an unincorporated area in Contra Costa County, over a hundred properties."

He estimates statewide that number could be in the thousands.

Adding to the concern, experts say many storm drain pipes installed in Bay Area communities in the 1950's and 1960's are reaching the end of their lifespan.

"Bay Area development underwent a big post World War II boom, and a lot of these pipes are 50 years or older," said Wren. "A lot of storm and sanitary sewer pipes are ruptured and leaking in some way."

Knowing she may have plenty of company is little comfort to O'Connell, who worries every time it rains, and is still trying to find a contractor for the job.

"This isn't something that you can call and tell your friends about and they say 'I have a great plumber.'"

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