Mike Cicharz of Minnetonka learned that the sump pump keeping his basement dry was a problem for the entire metro area -- and that he would have to hire a plumber to fix it.

It's a startling bit of news 46 cities in the metro area are in the process of delivering to about 40,000 private property owners whose sump pumps, foundation drains, down spouts and leaking pipes send storm water directly into the regional sewer system.

Mixing storm water with waste water is a problem, says the Metropolitan Council, which runs the metro area's sewer systems. The clear water takes up sewage treatment capacity that could accommodate another 20 years of growth.

Cicharz has a general understanding of the problem and stopped contributing to it by redirecting his sump pump from a floor drain in the basement to his back yard. It cost about $800, half of which, he was relieved to learn, was reimbursed by the city of Minnetonka.

By the time all 40,000 private property owners finish making similar repairs and the cities plug the manhole covers and leaking pipes in their municipal systems, the combined cost of getting clear water out of the sewer system is expected to top $150 million, said Kyle Colvin, assistant manager of the Met Council's engineering group for environmental services.

But it would cost sewer users even more -- as much as $1 billion -- to add capacity to the sewer system to handle the storm water, Colvin said. "It is far less expensive to remove clear water than it is to try to build the system bigger to treat and store it," he said.

For that reason, the Met Council is requiring cities to make the repairs -- and in turn require residents to do so in their own homes -- or to pay a stiff fine. So far, all have chosen to make the repairs, Colvin said.

"I can't think of any community out there that doesn't recognize that this is a regional problem," he said.

Cities are motivated to avoid higher sewer costs, said Brian Wagstrom, public works director for the city of Minnetonka.

"For them to keep rates in line and to run an efficient system, they are basically demanding that cities get as much of that clear water out of the system as possible." Before repairs began, the council estimated that metro-wide, 300,000 gallons of storm water per minute entered the sewer system during heavy rains.

Eden Prairie opened discussions Tuesday on how to tackle $2.7 million in repairs, which includes work homeowners may have to finance. "There is some serious money that we are spending to solve this problem," said Public Works Director Eugene Dietz.

Consultants estimate that in Eden Prairie, 35 percent of the storm water gets into city sewers from manhole covers, leaking main line sewers that allow water into the system, and illegal cross connections between storm and sanitary sewers.

The other 65 percent comes from about 23,000 private properties, about 16,000 of which are residential. Before 1973, it was legal to connect sump pumps, roof downspouts and foundation drains to the sanitary sewer system, consultants said.

Eden Prairie City Council members looked Tuesday at the draft of a proposed ordinance requiring inspections in all homes and making it illegal to send clear water to the sewer.

They agreed it would be important to educate residents on the reason for the inspections and repairs before starting the inspections. The council will consider the ordinance on first reading in mid-October.

The proposed ordinance would impose a $100 fine on a home owner for every month he or she refuses to allow city inspectors into a house. But the proposed ordinance also would allow homeowners to hire a certified private inspector to look at their basements if they don't want city inspectors nosing around.

Colvin said "the vast majority of communities doing home inspections are doing so without much comment." Once the homeowner realizes that the city is there to verify compliance to the plumbing code, that usually reduces concerns about privacy and home invasion, he said.

Some cities, such as Golden Valley, require residents to pay for the repairs themselves. But some, like Minnetonka, offer a city grant to help pay for the work.

Eden Prairie is still considering whether to offer city assistance. Dietz said he will make a recommendation about that once the inspections indicate what the typical problems are going to be.

Plymouth, Chaska, Medina, Mound and New Brighton are among cities that are well into or have finished repairs, according to the Met Council. Minnetonka expects to finish its home inspections by the end of this year, Wagstrom said. So far, 356 houses didn't pass the inspections and needed repairs. Of those, 169 have now been repaired and have passed after reinspection.

Cities have until 2012 to show how much of the problem they can fix by inspecting properties and ordering plumbing repairs. At that point, the Met Council will consider what to do next, Colvin said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711