Bay Crossings Article

We All Have a Sewage Problem

By 
Deb Self, Executive Director
From the March 2010 edition of Bay Crossings

Slow drains are the first sign of trouble.  A baby opossum in the potty is a real warning sign, though.  Yes, my 1928 home had the original sectional terra cotta sewer pipes, and earthquakes and tree roots had left large openings in the pipes.  A den of adolescent possums apparently had used the pipe (during dry weather) for exploring.  The baby opossum that showed up in the house went to the Lindsay Wildlife museum hospital, and we called a sewer repair company.  A video inspection revealed major gaps in the pipe, meaning that not only was some sewage leaking out of the pipe; during heavy rains, rainwater was leaking into the pipe and helping to swell the volume of wastewater flowing into East Bay Municipal Utility District’s treatment plant.  Now we have new, seamless lateral line -- and during rainstorms, we cut back on laundry, showers and dishwashing, to keep the volume of wastewater going to EBMUD as low as possible.

From the number of sewer repair vans I see in my neighborhood, I know that many private sewer lines are also in bad shape.  That’s one crucial way you can take action at home to protect the Bay from sewage spills: have your lateral line inspected and have it replaced by a company that is certified to connect your line to the city’s sewer pipe.

Likewise, our cities’ sewage collection pipes are generally quite old and in an awful state of disrepair.  Running under the center of each street, the sewer main is joined by perpendicular lateral lines that carry sewage from each home and business to the city’s main.  Because the sewer mains were put down when the neighborhoods were constructed, thousands of miles of sewage pipes in the Bay Area (and across the country) are as old as the building booms that followed World War I and II, in the late 1920’s and late 1940’s.  

You can see the trace of the underground sewage pipes in the patterns of potholes, especially in older neighborhoods.  Notice that residential roads have potholes running down the center of the street, where leaking sewage lines have eroded the soil supporting the road from underneath.  Often, our cities have repaired the same potholes year after year, without replacing the cause of the problem – old, leaking pipes beneath the road.  Such deferred maintenance has led to rampant sewage clogs and backups throughout the Bay Area and has allowed rainwater to seep into the system and swell the amount of sewage heading downstream to Bay Area’s 40 treatment plants.  Often overwhelmed by these massive flows, the treatment plants release millions of gallons of raw or undertreated sewage directly into the Bay every year.

Predictably, this year’s first big storm triggered rampant sewage spills, leading to polluted waterways and beach closures across the Bay Area.  In late January, nearly 700,000 gallons of raw or undertreated sewage was forced into the Bay throughout the Bay Area, from Sausalito to Richmond to Mountain View.  Additionally, EBMUD’s overflow facilities released more than 170 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the Richmond and Oakland harbors. 

Sewage spills can be disastrous for our local creeks and the Bay.  Bacteria in sewage often causes rashes and infections for the swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers, wildlife and pets that are in and around the Bay year-round.  The excess nutrients in the sewage also can deplete oxygen that fish need, and the wastewater can contaminate food sources for wildlife.   

Unfortunately, on a regional scale, our sewage systems still aren’t being operated in way that is financially or environmentally sustainable.  While repair costs can be steep, cities generally pay much more the longer they wait to do repairs.  And all sewage districts collect fees for sewer maintenance; sometimes they just need public pressure (or a lawsuit) to spend the money now.  The Environmental Protection Agency has said that sewer pipes should have no more than two spills per hundred miles of pipe each year, but many cities in the Bay Area have rates fifty to sixty times higher than that.  Through our Sick of Sewage Campaign, Baykeeper is working with cities to prioritize their repairs, and we’re having good success at compelling many overdue improvements. 

Please join our efforts. Ask your local city council member, board of supervisor and elected sewer district board members what your community’s plan is to upgrade your local sewer system.  Visit www.baykeeper.org for more information.