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Medford's raw sewage contaminating creeks

Raw sewage has flowed into Medford creeks for years because of a mix-up with wastewater and storm-drain lines on some newer homes.

City officials discovered that plumbers inadvertently connected storm-drain lines from the homes to the city's sewer system, and sewer lines to the storm-drain system.

"When we've lifted manhole covers for storm drains, we've discovered raw sewage in there," said Chris Reising, the city's building director.

Since 2000, city officials found 19 homes that had incorrect connections, mainly in east Medford. Three cases since September haven't yet been corrected in the Eagle Trace subdivision off Hillcrest Road.

Reising said more houses with problems could potentially be discovered in the future, though he thought it would average less than two a year.

The raw sewage from these houses eventually flows into creeks, helping raise fecal coliform bacteria in the water to unsafe levels and potentially affecting fish habitat, Reising said. Agricultural operations are other sources of fecal coliform in creeks.

Incorrect connections send storm water to the sewage treatment plant, requiring more energy and materials to treat wastewater.

Duane Nelson, whose home in the Eagle Trace subdivision on Cloudcrest Drive is one of those recently notified, said the plumber who did the original work hasn't responded yet.

As far as he knows, sewer water from the house built in 2005 is still flowing into the storm drains.

"A guy from the city poured some dye down the toilet," he said. "He came back and said there was a problem. I guess we're not the only ones."

Bob Roe, president of the Eagle Trace Homeowners Association, said affected residents are questioning why the city didn't discover the problem when the houses were being built.

"If there was an inspection, why wasn't it caught?" he said. "It wasn't the homeowner's fault."

In some cases, the second or third owner of the home is now confronted with a problem that started more than a decade ago. Also, the mixed-up lines are often not even on the homeowners' property but on a utility easement area behind the houses.

Roe said multiple plumbers were involved in some building projects, so it has been difficult to nail down who did the work. In other cases, the original contractor has gone out of business.

He said the storm lines from the subdivision flow directly into Lazy Creek.

The city has said the repairs are a homeowner's responsibility, but the residents are wondering why they have to pick up the tab, which could run into thousands of dollars and require the removal of landscaping.

"They say, 'Why do I have to go through this big expense, when it was your responsibility to get it right in the first place?' " Roe said.

Reising said the city does spot inspections on houses under construction, but can't conduct continuous inspections for every aspect of the building. "A lot of it is based on trust," he said.

Despite the problems with the houses so far, Reising said that amount represents less than half of 1 percent of the 3,600 permits issued for new houses since 2000.

When the subdivisions are prepared, stakes indicate which line is for sewage and which line is for storm water. However, many of the stakes get lost as time passes.

Both the storm and sewer lines generally are made of white plastic piping, though sometimes the storm lines are green or blue. The pipes are often located in close proximity and are 3 to 4 inches in diameter.

"In some cases, the plumber, when he is making the connection, transposes the sewer and storm lines," Reising said.

The city attempts to track down the original contractor to resolve the problem so the cost doesn't fall on the homeowner, but many contractors have gone out of business in recent years, he said.

The city has investigated requiring different colors for the storm and sewer lines, but that would require stocking specialty pipe locally, which would drive up construction costs, Reising said.

He said more recent construction now has taping material on the sewer lines that helps avoid these kinds of mix-ups.

On any new construction, Reising said if there is any doubt, extra effort is now being made to ensure the correct lines are being connected.

"We want to be doubly careful that it doesn't happen again," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.