Easement Maintenance Equals Easier Maintenance

Easement Maintenance Equals Easier Maintenance

While the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is often tossed around when discussing water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure, this really only applies when everything is working as it should. Once a problem arises—like a water main break or a sewer overflow—the time and effort necessary to get things working again relies heavily on having a well-maintained, identifiable utility easement; otherwise emergencies involving these “invisible” pieces of our lives can have serious social, economic, and environmental impacts.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that there are 2.4 million of miles of utility pipes buried beneath our feet; this is enough to wrap around the world nearly 100 times, meaning pipes are literally everywhere. Densely populated metropolitan areas are virtual spaghetti bowls of utilities crisscrossing one another at varying elevations, meandering beneath roadways, sidewalks, parks, and rivers, and crossing quietly under railroad tracks, driveways, retaining walls, fences, swimming pools, and buildings. And we never even notice it. But when there’s a problem, who do you call? Unfortunately, the Ghost Busters can’t help you here. The best-case scenario is that whoever you call knows exactly where the pipes are and how to get unimpeded, immediate access in order to get things back on track (and make sure you’ve got running water for necessities. Like coffee.)

Know your assets

For utilities, maintaining a database of your assets’ location, use, size, and depth is a daunting task but regrettably only half the battle. Having this information on hand is only so useful in the case of an emergency if you don’t have access to these assets. A failure at a site where assets are obscured by vegetation or inaccessible to maintenance vehicles can make corrective maintenance much more challenging and expensive. This is why it’s crucial that cities locate these assets and develop a strategy for establishing and maintaining access to them as necessary. Arriving onsite at 1 a.m. in a snowstorm to a broken watermain that serves a hospital only to realize the section of broken pipe is only accessible by cutting down 50 years of tree growth does not make for a fun night. Furthermore, discovering that the pipe failure was due to 50 years of tree root damage further reiterates the importance of easement identification and maintenance in a high-functioning utility district.

So, what is a utility easement? A utility easement is a portion of private property that’s designated to hold or access a public utility. Easements are typically established at the time the utility is constructed or when a property is subdivided for use. In the case of sanitary sewer, the easement is where the sanitary sewer main is located on the private property, and it gives the utility district the right to access the property to inspect and maintain the asset.

Faster, more effective maintenance

The central question is then: how do we proactively approach easements to reduce the likelihood of an access disaster?

Know your easements—Document, document, document. Use tools like GIS to map asset locations and add system characteristics. Know which pipes are within public right-of-ways and which are in easements or other off-street locations. Locate and document property deed information that typically describe the extents of the easement and use restrictions. It is not uncommon to encounter an undocumented easement where no formal agreement was ever filed or agreed upon. These instances are important to get ahead of and may necessitate legal counsel.

Develop a plan—Develop and implement a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) easement maintenance plan for each easement to ensure unimpeded access. Document the condition of each easement and collect an inventory of the off-street assets, including their means of access and any major challenges that may be encountered during maintenance activities. Some maintenance plans may include routine inspections; clearing debris; notification requirements; communicating with property owners if relocating semi-permanent structures such as sheds, fences, or dumpsters is necessary; identifying specific access requirements or permissions; and/or establishing the frequency of maintenance activities like mowing or clearing.

Take action—Plans are worthless if they only exist in paper form and sit on a shelf collecting dust. Utility owners must implement the utility easement plan as required and update the plan as necessary. Publish the plans to educate businesses, residents, and utility district staff about the specific requirements and importance of keeping the assets accessible.

Don’t forget the asset—With all this effort around identifying and maintaining the easement let’s not forget why we are conducting this exercise in the first place. The asset that remains out of sight, but not out of mind anymore needs to be maintained to ensure uninterrupted service. This requires developing and implementing a plan to maintain the asset itself, which might include periodic inspection using CCTV, flushing, or rehabilitation and replacement if needed.

Utility districts save valuable time in responding to emergencies such as watermain breaks, sanitary sewer overflows, or flooding if they know their assets and have unobstructed access to them. This time prevents further damage from occurring by allowing the utility district to focus on the repair work and not on gaining access to the troublesome area. While it can be a challenge upfront to identify easements and implement a regular plan for maintaining them, you’ll be glad you took the proactive approach the next time an issue arises. So save yourself the added time and effort down the line by getting started now.

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Project Manager
Municipal Wastewater

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