Joseph Abeyta (right) attaches the “warthog," a cleaning nozzle, to the hose that will be fed into the sewer system. The nozzle cuts the roots found intruding into the pipes. Jerry Mendzer watches for traffic while Mark Cardenas checks notes on his iPad.
By Tina Richards
Six months after Orange County Sanitation turned 170 miles of sewer lines over to the East Orange County Water District (EOCWD), the new operator reports that despite a few unanticipated growing pains, the transition has proceeded smoothly.
“I’d give us a B-plus,” EOCWD General Manager Lisa Ohlund says. “We’re not perfect, but the important stuff -- we got right.”
EOCWD was the underdog in the county’s handover of the Area 7 sewer system. A wholesale and retail water district, the agency had no sewer experience. Critics claimed that EOCWD did not have the right equipment or personnel to maintain the system adequately, and the area would be subject to spills the agency couldn’t handle. Headquartered in a double-wide trailer in Orange, and with only eight full-time staffers, EOCWD was seen as not having enough “muscle” to take on an infrastructure of pipes that spanned 7,777 acres, and had 18,000 residential and commercial connections.
Its competition, Irvine Ranch Water District, offered ratepayers a 50 percent cut, promised to clean the entire system every two years, and respond to spills in 30 minutes. EOCWD met the rate cut, offered to clean the system annually, and respond to spills in 20 minutes. Sewer Area 7, encompassing North Tustin and El Modena, closely mirrored EOCWD’s retail water footprint. Community sentiment supported the locally-based agency, and it ultimately prevailed.
What you don’t know
“We had done a thorough assessment of the system, identified "hot spots" (areas subject to spills) and hired the same maintenance subcontractor that OC Sanitation had used,” Ohlund, whose background includes 30 years of sewer experience, says. “But there’s no way we could have planned for everything, because we weren’t operating the system.”
Just weeks after taking over the system, a truck driver ran over a loose manhole cover that flew like a tiddlywink into the car behind it. No one was hurt, but the incident put manhole covers on the radar. EOCWD’s insurance company paid the claim, and the district prioritized a thorough inspection of the 3,500 manhole covers in its purview. It found 20 that needed repair, and made the necessary fixes to ensure that none of them would take flight.
Manhole covers just scratch the surface of the underground network of pipes, joints and connections that make up a sewer system. “A sewer is like a living, breathing thing,” Ohlund says. “It’s gassy, its arteries get clogged and hardened. It needs care, and some sections are more demanding than others. You have to get to know it.”
See for yourself
Getting to know its new responsibility was an EOCWD priority. The agency retained Performance Piping, the company that had cleaned and maintained the system for OC Sanitation for 30 years. To build its in-house knowledge, EOCWD organized the 35 boxes of paperwork and 40 gigabytes of electronic data turned over to it by the county. Staff studied records to identify areas that had multiple spills, determined which occurred in dry or wet weather, and whether they were caused by roots or grease. Those “hot spots” are the ones to watch and demand more maintenance.
EOCWD also invested in a nozzle cam, a high-definition imaging system that allows workers to see exactly what’s happening on the inside of the pipes. It is fitted to the nozzle of the cleaning equipment that is remotely guided down the length of the pipe. Once grease buildup or roots have been cleared out, the camera sends detailed pictures directly to the technician’s iPhone or iPad. “These are high-quality pictures,” Ohlund explains. “You can see every crack, deposit or root remnant. It’s like being inside the pipe yourself.”
EOCWD is one of the first agencies in the county to purchase the high-definition nozzle cam. It also makes use of a sophisticated software program that puts the cleaning, repair and service history, as well as detailed engineering drawings of every inch of the system, in the hands of every technician via iPhone or iPad. “When we told people we could take over the sewer system by hiring just two more employees, they asked how we were going to do that,” Ohlund says. “This is how.”
When technicians are in the field, they can access a particular pipe segment’s or joint’s entire history. They can see when it was last serviced, and read the field notes of the individual who worked on it. It’s another way of “getting to know the system” – technicians carry 30 years of system experience in their pockets.
The smell of success
Borrowing experience while it builds its own has helped EOCWD work out the kinks common to any major transition. Despite unexpected equipment repairs, a flood of permit requests, and the errant manhole cover, Ohlund reports that the agency has already solved ongoing problems for now-happy customers.
One resident had been plagued by sewer odors for years. The smell was intermittent, but undeniable. Repeated service calls had not solved the problem. “We got a call right after we took over,” Ohlund recalls. “Our guys went out and discovered the smell was coming from the HOA’s pump station. The HOA contractor was not pumping often enough, and the sewage was turning septic.” EOCWD worked with the HOA and the contractor to solve that problem, and with more frequent pumping, the homeowner could breathe again.
Most people, save for that suffocating homeowner, don’t think about sewer systems. But if any one of EOCWD’s sewer customers did notice the transition from OC Sanitation to its new operator, Lisa Ohlund hopes it’s because they think it's better.