Bay Crossings Article

Making Progress Toward a Sewage-Free San Francisco Bay

By 
Deb Self
From the November 2013 edition of Bay Crossings

Will millions of gallons of raw and undertreated sewage get spilled into San Francisco Bay this rainy season? Baykeeper will monitor reports of spills and get that information out to the public in our interactive online map. Rainy-season sewage spills and overflows have contaminated the Bay for years, because many Bay Area sewage collection systems need repair and are prone to clogs and breaks. But now, thanks to Baykeeper’s successful Sick of Sewage campaign, the tide is turning.

Baykeeper has secured legally-binding Clean Water Act agreements compelling some of the region’s worst-polluting sewer systems to make needed upgrades. Sewer agencies serving 20 cities are now required to repair crumbling pipes and replace outdated infrastructure, on a year-by-year schedule. In the past five years, several Peninsula cities, where we reached some of our earliest cleanup agreements, have reduced sewage spills by as much as 75 percent. One city, South San Francisco, finished its required repairs three years early and is no longer causing sewage pollution problems in the Bay.

Sewage is a major threat to the Bay’s health. When swimmers, surfers and others come in contact with sewage-contaminated water, it can cause persistent skin and sinus infections and painful stomach disorders. Sewage also harms the Bay’s fish, seals, other sea creatures and plant life.

This pollution gets into the Bay from two sources, leaky pipes and treatment plants. During storms, large amounts of rainwater can seep into leaky sewer pipes through holes or broken connections. The increased volume of sewage and water fills the pipes, which are often clogged with roots that have worked their way in. This causes the rain-sewage mixture to back up and gush into streets, often through manhole covers. From there, in most Bay Area cities, the sewage gets washed to a storm drain that leads to a creek or the Bay, with no filtering or treatment.

The second big problem for the Bay is so-called "wet weather overflows" from sewage treatment plants. When huge amounts of rainwater work their way into upstream collection pipes, much more water flows into sewage treatment plants than they are designed to handle. If the incoming volume exceeds the plant’s capacity, the facility partially treats the mixture and discharges it into the Bay—sometimes hundreds of millions of gallons at once.

Although some Bay Area sewer agencies are successfully cutting their rate of spills into the Bay, nine East Bay cities, including Oakland and Richmond, still need to take action. Baykeeper is pressing these cities to improve their plans for upgrading their sewer systems, to ensure that they make the same kind of dramatic reductions in sewage spills that have been made on the Peninsula.

As Baykeeper works to reduce sewage pollution from the Peninsula and East Bay, state and federal regulatory agencies have taken action on polluting sewer systems in Marin County. San Francisco, unlike most Bay Area cities, sends water that flows into storm drains to sewage treatment plants, but still sometimes pollutes the Bay with sewage overflows. We hope that a major overhaul planned for San Francisco’s system will reduce this pollution.

Each of us can also help protect the Bay from sewage. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t pour fats, oil and grease down the drain. When cooking fats are washed down the drain, they can clump together, especially in cold weather, and form "fatbergs" that clog sewer pipes. The result is sewage backed up into the street, or even onto your property or into your home, often leading to the spill being washed into a creek or storm drain that flows to the Bay. Instead, wipe oily pots and pans with a paper towel or put excess grease in a can, and put it in the trash. Take large amounts of cooking oil—like used oil from a fryer—to a grease recycling site.
  • If you’re a homeowner, have the sewer pipe that connects your home to the city pipes inspected and, if necessary, repaired or replaced. Having this work done is one of the best things you can do for San Francisco Bay.
  • Support sewer fee increases for sewer repairs and upgrades. Help your city build a Bay-friendly sewage system.

Baykeeper will watchdog the Bay Area’s polluting sewer systems to ensure that they keep making required repairs and upgrades and that the repairs protect the Bay from sewage. Our goal is steady progress until sewage is no longer a major pollution problem in San Francisco Bay.