After meltwater overwhelmed a city sewer system earlier this month, Scandia city officials are looking into whether they can charge a local homeowner for the damages.

During last week’s council meeting, Scandia Public Works Director Adam Hawkinson reported that the city had incurred more than $8,000 in sewer pumping expenses after a homeowner in the Bliss subdivision, west of Big Marine Lake, piled snow on top of a stormwater outlet that drains into the lake. Once that storm drain froze, meltwater and water from the recent rainfall flooded basements and garages in the neighborhood and poured into the city’s sewer system, which serves more than 70 homes and cabins in the area.

Private sewer contractors spent 25.5 hours hauling 46,652 gallons of septage out of the system. Though the sewer system’s capacity is 20,000 gallons per day, and has an average flow of around 4,785 gallons per day, the system topped 55,000 gallons, Hawkinson reported. City fire trucks were also dispatched to help remove some of the standing water that had yet to infiltrate the septic system. 

“We have data that shows we get increased inflows with weather,” Hawkinson said in a follow-up interview last week. “But this situation was extraordinary. … There was eight to 10 inches of standing water in some areas.”

City council members Chris Ness and Jerry Cusick were first to suggest the homeowner be held legally accountable.

Cusick, a retired sheriff’s deputy, noted that there are criminal statutes to hold people accountable for damaging public property—and $8,000 worth of damage could very well rise to the level of a felony.

“There has to be an avenue to recapture some amount of (the cost),” Cusick said.

Ness, whose home is also served by a city sewer system, noted that if the city is not able to recover the fees, all sewer system customers would likely have to foot the $8,000 bill.

“Obviously I’m biased on this, but it seems to me there should be some sort of (restitution),” Ness said. “Is this really that different from tampering with a lock and putting stuff directly down the sewer?” 

But was it a crime or simply a civil matter?

City Attorney Eric Sherburne told the council he would have to look into how the city might recover the damages civilly. Sherburne also questioned how much the city would be able to prove.

“It could be worth further investigation,” Sherburne said. “I wouldn’t ask you to wait on filing a criminal complaint.”

The situation arises even as the city last month approved an inspection program to allow its engineering firm, Bolton & Menk, to assess stormwater inflow and infiltration. Hawkinson noted that the city’s other sewer system, the Anderson/Erickson system on the east side of Big Marine Lake, also saw considerable inflow during the recent warmer temperatures and rain event.

The two aging sewer systems are in need of costly upgrades within the next three to eight years; the city hiked sewer rates in 2017 to help pay for those upgrades. The systems are entirely funded by user fees. 

The council agreed that the Bliss incident should at least serve as an educational moment for the public about where they place plowed snow. 

“Everyone knows that you can’t do what this guy did,” Cusick said.

Ness agreed.

“At the very least, people need to be made aware,” Ness said.

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