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Are Sewers Backing Up In Los Gatos?

Two sanitary sewer clean-outs experience back-up on North Santa Cruz Avenue.

This closeup of a North Santa Cruz Avenue sewage backup Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 shows toilet paper and other debris on the surface. Photo courtesy Gary Hinze
This closeup of a North Santa Cruz Avenue sewage backup Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 shows toilet paper and other debris on the surface. Photo courtesy Gary Hinze
Los Gatos Patch contributor Gary Hinze is reporting that while riding his bike down North Santa Cruz Avenue, between Highway 9 and Andrews Street, on Thursday, Dec. 5 he spotted two sanitary sewer clean-outs leaking sewage onto the sidewalk and street.

There was quite a bit of sewage in the gutter, according to Hinze, and people, dogs, cars and bikes were all over it.

Hinze said about a month ago he had reported one of the same overflowing gutters to the businesses nearby, but since he noticed it happening again so soon and three within one block, he contacted Los Gatos Parks and Public Works and West Valley Sanitation staff to alert them of the problem.

The next day of him reporting the problem, Edward H. Oyama, director of engineering and operations for West Valley Sanitation emailed him back to tell him he had asked the agency’s maintenance crews to investigate and take whatever actions were necessary to clean up and repair the problem.

Hinze said the sewer spill was cleaned up right away, but has concerns that it be done properly as it requires disinfection. He said one of the spills left rust stains on the concrete.

Oyama encouraged Hinze and town residents with sewer and sanitation concerns to call the agency’s office at 408-378-2407 24 hours a day, seven days a week to report any similar problem.

Upon receiving the information, Oyama said, agency workers can be on site within 30 minutes during normal workdays and 60 minutes at all other times. 

Hinze is now wondering how widespread the problem is and hopes alerting the community will help them know what to do when they experience similar issues.

Hinze also noted the sewage spills flow in the downtown gutters, to Los Gatos Creek, to the perk ponds, where they could enter the drinking water aquifer.


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Jeremy Barousse December 10, 2013 at 02:40 PM
Oh no, I hope they are fixed soon.
Mckenna Smith December 10, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Ew, that's so gross!!!
Gary Hinze December 10, 2013 at 03:21 PM
They were fixed by WVSD immediately after receiving notice. They do good work. This was especially urgent because of the Christmas Parade. I saw it Thursday afternoon, reported it by email as soon as I got home. I should have phoned. They fixed it first thing Friday morning. The Parade was Saturday. Any time you see sewage on the surface, whether it is coming from a cleanout cover behind the sidewalk or a manhole cover in the street, call the number given in the article above and report it. (In another jurisdiction, I would call 911.) Have a street address or street and distance and direction from the nearest cross street. Don't step in it, keep your animals out of it.
Timothy Scott Gorsulowsky December 10, 2013 at 04:49 PM
That is scary, hope it gets' top priority to correct the issue....
Irene Aida Garza-Ortiz December 10, 2013 at 10:16 PM
Thankful & Grateful that this problem can be solved promptly! One of many things we take for granted. 🎄
Larry Arzie December 10, 2013 at 11:01 PM
The downtown sewers are vintage 1890 and in some cases could not even be located as they were not mapped. WVSD bought the sewers system from the town of Los Gatos about 20 years ago and now places the burden of responsibility on the property owners to put clean outs in front of their buildings. They put them in free for residential housing but not for commercial properties. The tree roots constantly plug up the lateral lines from the buildings and spill onto the sidewalks. 20 years ago the clean outs were at the back of the buildings and the town of Los Gatos used to clean them out regularly. Today unless thousands of dollars are spent on placing the clean outs in front WVSD wont take care of the root problem even though it is their responsibility unless it is in the front sidewalks. I guess they think is better for the toilet deposits to run down the sidewalks than stay on private property. This folks is your county bureaucrats at work saving money at the health risk of it's constituency.
Marilyn Leonard December 11, 2013 at 01:11 AM
Yuk! Hope all is well now.
Gary Hinze December 12, 2013 at 04:13 AM
The sewers have been surveyed and mapped. There was even a computer sewer flow model. It is pretty standard everywhere to require cleanouts at the property line. They are not free for residential housing. If you buy a tract house, the prorated cost of the streets, traffic control, curb & gutter, sidewalk, house lateral, cleanout and public sewer are all included in the price you paid for the house. If you develop a commercial or residential property, of course you must pay for the onsite sewer, cleanout and lateral to the main in the street. Cleanouts do not do any good at the back of the building, unless you have a septic tank in the back yard. The public sewer is in the public right of way in the street, in front, where it is accessible for maintenance. A public agency maintaining a private sewer on private property would be an illegal gift of public funds. WVSD is not responsible for your tree roots, you are responsible for your tree. If your tree roots plug your lateral, you are responsible to prevent toilet deposits from running down the sidewalk. If WVSD maintained private laterals, that cost would have to be covered by an increase in everybody's sewer service and use charge on your annual property tax bill. Sewer maintenance is not free.
Larry Arzie December 12, 2013 at 06:17 PM
Gary. The responsibility for sewers in our Central business district stops at the front of the commercial property lines. The Tree roots that are causing the problem is in the pipes that lead from the property line to the sewer which is WVSD's responsibility. They pay for flushing out these line, but only if you put a clean out on the public sidewalk in front of the property. Smelly stuff on the sidewalk is normal here. By the way all the houses in my neighborhood have just had new cleanouts installed FREE by WVSD. One of the sewer lines in the commercial downtown district could not be located while it was under the jurisdiction of Los Gatos. I don't know where you live but things must be different here.
Gary Hinze December 13, 2013 at 02:45 AM
Larry. WVSD is responsible for maintaining the lateral from the property line to the sewer main, so, yes, if street tree roots get into that part of the lateral, they will take care of it, as they did in this case. They can't do that unless there is a cleanout there. New construction, going back many decades, requires a cleanout at the time the lateral is installed. There are some that predate that requirement. If the tree is in the middle of the front lawn and the roots get into the part of the lateral that is on private property, it is the property owner's responsibility to clear it. Some jurisdictions will install a cleanout at the property line if the property owner requests or approves it. Remember, the lateral belongs to the property owner and the agency can't mess with it without permission or there is an immediate threat to public health and safety. Such cleanouts are not free, they are budgeted and paid out of your annual sewer tax. It is hard to lose a sewer, they are between those big metal disks in the street. Sometimes the covers get overlaid by resurfacing. They can be found by sighting the pipe alignment from a visible manhole and using a metal detector to find the cover. Manholes are usually a standard distance apart. Now we have video cameras on tractors that can go through the pipe. The reason I forwarded these pictures and this information to Sheila was so she could inform people of Los Gatos that whenever they see sewage on the surface, they should call the number above with a clear description. WVSD will get to it right away.
Larry Arzie December 13, 2013 at 11:26 AM
Gary: In the 1970's the town could not find a sewer main on Santa Cruz ave. to take care of the backup into our buildings. Hense my comment to this point. Also the flushouts were traditionally put in the rear of the buildings which butt the rear property lines even though the sewers were located in the front of the buildings. The town of Los Gatos serviced the root problems caused by public trees in the front from the rear flushout. My point is the WVSD in their need to save money prefers to allow sewage to seep onto our public sidewalks rather than take care of the problem from the rear even though it puts us at risk.
Gary Hinze December 13, 2013 at 04:30 PM
Larry: Many properties were developed prior to the construction of sanitary sewers in the streets. Those homes usually had a septic system in the back yard, with a tank and leech field. The tank had to be mucked out every few years. The entire cost was borne by the property owner. Areas that did have sewers in the street often drained to a community septic tank that overflowed the liquid into a local creek. The cost of the community sewer had to be born by the entire community, through taxes or fees, and administered by a public agency. Many of those systems were combined sewers that conveyed both sewage and storm water. Major storm events routinely flushed everything into the creek. With the proposal of a regional waste water treatment plant it became necessary to separate the storm water from the sewer system to qualify for necessary federal funding. Many storm separation projects were built during the 50's. The regional treatment plant was built in 1956. As old private septic systems began to fail and population boomed there was motivation to construct public sewers everywhere. The laterals coming out of the back of the old house had to be routed around the house out to the public sewer in the street. Some paid their pro rated portion of sewer construction and connected immediately, some paid for the construction, but deferred connection and some deferred connection and payment for some future time when they would pay their portion, plus interest. The property owner is still responsible for maintaining the portion on private property. This is the general practice, there have been exceptions and there are many surprises in the sewer system. The whole purpose of WVSD is to convey sewage to the regional plant without spilling any on the surface. They know that and they do a good job. They don't gain anything by trying to "save money". It is your sewer fee that pays for the work. I have worked closely with WVSD in managing Area X, where we have sewers crossing a patchwork of different jurisdictions, some belonging to WVSD and some to CSJ. There are even tracts inside San Jose that flow to the Sunnyvale treatment plant. In the City of San Jose, if the property owner doesn't immediately remedy a spill, the City can do the work or contract the work and bill the property owner. That can include the installation of a cleanout at the property line to allow City forces to maintain the privately owned lateral in the public right of way. There are several provisions in Code, one of which allows City forces to install a cleanout at public expense, without charge to the property owner. Other jurisdictions may have other rules.
Larry Arzie December 13, 2013 at 08:18 PM
Gary, the subject is commercial sewage spills in down town Los Gatos. Your all over the map. In the past the town of Los Gatos did the clean out. Since WVSD took over they absolved themselves of this responsibility. They put in flush outs for residential but do not help out for commercial. Commercial pays for the residential clean out for residences as you say in their sewage taxes but gets nothing in return to correct their situation. Instead of fixing the root problem in the public right away they allow sewage to constantly run onto sidewalks. This is a constant problem and if it happens on the week end it runs until someone someone calls them. Tell you buddies at WVSD to stop playing Russian roulette with our lives. Someone is going to end up with hepatitis and possibly die.
Gary Hinze December 14, 2013 at 04:12 AM
Larry, the subject is sewer spills and what to do about them. Whether commercial or residential, whether coming from cleanouts or manholes, we all agree, including WVSD, that they should be stopped as soon as possible. WVSD does fix a root problem every time they get a call. WVSD has a large service area and a small staff. They can't be everywhere all the time. They depend on people calling in spills. That's why I sent these pictures and this story to Sheila, so she could inform her readers of the number to call when they see a spill. If you have an issue with cleanout installation, that is also the number to call. You brought up where cleanouts were and who pays for them. I responded to your comment. Residential owners also pay a sewer tax. I live in WVSD and it's on my property tax bill. If you want, we can engage in a philosophical discussion of the rationale and justification for the assessment of sewer fees. A very interesting, although somewhat esoteric subject.
Larry Arzie December 14, 2013 at 01:14 PM
Gary I beg to differ with you but WVSD Does Not Fix root problems every time I call. Since they took over the district from Los Gatos they do nothing but send a rooter down the hole which is a temporary fix for about six months. There are offsets on just about every lateral that runs from the property line to the sewer downtown. They need to budget in new lines to the sewer instead of allowing this absurd problem to continue to bubble up.
Gary Hinze December 14, 2013 at 09:32 PM
You will need to talk to WVSD and probably the Town of Los Gatos about that. The lateral was built by the property owner at the time at their expense and belongs to them and subsequent owners. WVSD is authorized to clean it if it gets plugged as a matter of public health and safety and convenience, but replacing it is another matter. There are various things that can be done to prevent root intrusion, each with different advantages, disadvantages and costs.
Larry Arzie December 15, 2013 at 04:51 PM
Gary, what some people are doing is when in Hollister or Santa Cruz they buy the foamy root killer which is not allowed in this county. I was told by WVSD that it is illegal and he claimed they could trace it back to the point of origin and fine me. I laughed and told him he was the origin of the problem by not correcting the laterals past the front of the property lines into the sewers. I had a clean out installed when changing the sidewalk and number 2 spills out about every 60 days. The problem is no longer mine, it is now all of ours.
Gary Hinze December 16, 2013 at 05:28 AM
I expect the poisons are prohibited because of their effect on the treatment process at the plant, where the sewage is decomposed by a complex mix of microorganisms. I wonder whether there is something else that can be done, other than calling them every 59 days. Since the lateral is yours all the way to the main, I would expect you would have to pay for it. Maybe you could convince them to share the cost if it relieves them of having to come out every 59 days. The entire lateral can be dug up and replaced with something impervious to roots. Expensive and would require a permit from the town of Los Gatos to dig in the street. The pipe could be burst from inside and a continuous liner inserted, requiring on site excavation for the insertion and maybe excavation at the main only. Or a polyester sock saturated with resin could be everted into the lateral, cooked with hot water and cut off at both ends, from inside the pipe by a robot. Talk to WVSD about the options. I'm sure they have catalogs of sewer service contractors.

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