New Ulm Eliminates Illegal Stormwater Flow

Minnesota city tackles inflow with an innovative sump pump inspection project.

New Ulm Eliminates Illegal Stormwater Flow

New Ulm summer workers Elizabeth Miller and George Smith inspect a home for signs of an illegal sump pump hookup.

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Illegal sump pump connections in New Ulm, Minnesota, are a thing of the past. 

For the past three summers, the city took on an ambitious project to inspect every residence in the city for illegal connections. Although New Ulm has an ordinance against illegal sump pump hookups to the wastewater system, enforcing the rule has been a big challenge. 

Dan O’Connor, the city’s wastewater treatment supervisor, solved that challenge by hiring temporary summer workers to go out and check every city residence for illegal connections. 

“We were thinking, let’s go out there and do this. Let’s check for illegal hookups,” he says. “It was a city ordinance but never enforced.” 

The checks revealed about 3 percent of the city’s homes had their sump pumps discharging into the sanitary sewer. They were given 60 days to correct the problem and have the home rechecked. 

A big rain event in 2013 brought the issue of illegal connections to the forefront after some residents had flooded basements because the system backed up. Pipes were not able to handle the extra stormwater coming from illegal connections, O’Connor says. 

“All municipalities deal with I&I issues. We addressed infiltration by carefully inspecting our infrastructure,” he says. “After that, it was onto inflow: looking at both sump pumps in residences and eventually roof leaders downtown.” 

Checking residences for illegal connections, however, is very labor intensive, and O’Connor says the city couldn’t afford to pull people off their regular jobs. Three summers ago, the city decided to hire summer help to go out and check every home in the city. O’Connor says the project was modeled after one used by the city of Mankato about 10 years ago. 

This summer, the temporary workers finished their checks of the city’s homes. They worked 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — a nontraditional shift in order to catch more residents at home.  

“Using temporary help is a good way to tackle a big project like this,” O’Connor says, adding that two or three college students were hired each summer along with a retiree to work on the project. 

Training the temporary inspectors was not too difficult, he adds. The department used videos to show what legal and illegal sump pump connections look like. 

Inspecting all the homes in a city of 13,000 can be overwhelming, so O’Connor came up with a plan that divided the city into 28 zones. The temporary workers went to a select area of homes on a certain day and checked if people were home. If they were, the inspector would ask to come in to check the sump pump or set up a time to come back. If no one was home, a door tag was left instructing homeowners to call and set up an appointment. 

“It’s similar to the system we use when new water meters are put in,” O’Connor says. “You catch some people at home, and others you need to go back to later.” 

The tag instructs the homeowner to call within 15 days to set up an appointment. If homeowners fail to have the inspection done, a $50 wastewater surcharge is added to their monthly utility bill. Only a handful of homeowners refused the inspection. 

Homeowners also had the option of hiring a plumber to do the check if they did not want a city worker in their home. 

“When people heard about the inspections, many were proactive and got any problems fixed,” O’Connor says. 

An intensive public relations campaign about illegal sump pump connections and the problems they cause for homeowners and the city’s infrastructure was key to making the program a success, O’Connor says. 

“We marketed this project as we’re trying to protect you and your neighbors by looking for illegal connections that can put a greater strain on the system. Many people don’t even realize that what they have is not up to code.”


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