Every year, winter rains like the recent storms that have soaked the Bay Area help fill reservoirs and perk up lawns. But they also carry an ugly downside, causing aging sewage systems to back up, overflow and malfunction, endangering human health and polluting San Francisco Bay.
Last year, a staggering 17.5 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage spilled in the nine Bay Area counties -- enough to fill 26 Olympic-size swimming pools -- and 95 percent of it flowed to the bay, lakes or streams.
But with little fanfare, a small nonprofit group is steadily turning the tide.
Over the past five years, San Francisco Baykeeper, with a staff of eight people, has filed 10 lawsuits under the Clean Water Act, seeking to force dramatic reductions in sewage spills. The group has won every one, securing settlements that are forcing 20 cities from the East Bay to Silicon Valley to invest tens of millions of dollars replacing miles of cracked pipes, boosting inspections and cleaning up their operations.
"We have the worst polluters on a path to success," said Deb Self, executive director of the San Francisco-based group.
"It's a quality-of-life issue. There shouldn't be areas where there is sewage in the streets and playgrounds and flowing into the bay. These are not conditions we should have in this country."
The problem is fairly basic. There are 17,166 miles of sewer pipe in the Bay Area. That's nearly enough to stretch from San Francisco to New York City and back three times. But much of it is aging clay pipe that dates to the 1950s and earlier, with some sections under older suburbs more than a century old.
Earthquakes and shifts in the ground crack the pipes, allowing tree roots to grow through. Grease and other debris clog the pipes. Heavy rains pour into the cracks, overloading treatment plants and bubbling up through manhole covers.
"This is essentially untreated sewage. It is very significant," said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the state's primary water pollution agency, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, in Oakland.
"It overflows into storm drains and goes into the bay," Wolfe said. "It's organic matter, heavy metals, bacteria and other things that are significant for human health and aquatic species."
But state budget cuts have forced Wolfe's agency to cut his staff from 145 people a decade ago to 100.
Seeking more enforcement, Baykeeper stepped in.
The group took advantage of a 2006 law passed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that requires every public agency running a sewer system in California to file monthly reports showing how many spills their systems suffered and how much was spilled. The reports are tallied up in a database and posted on the Internet.
Baykeeper began ranking the roughly 100 cities in the Bay Area by their rate of spills. It hired lawyers and began suing them under the Clean Water Act, one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws -- and one that gives regular citizens, rather than just government agencies, the authority to sue polluters.
Critics say the group goes too far.
This month, the West Bay Sanitary District, a government agency that operates a sewage system for 55,000 people in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley, agreed to settle a two-year legal battle with Baykeeper.
The settlement requires the agency, based in Menlo Park, to check its entire 20-mile system of aging underground pipes with TV cameras every five years, to clean it every three years, and to step up the rate of repairing and replacing the most dilapidated pipes.
“A lot of the spills we were being sued over were minor spills,” said Phil Scott, West Bay’s district manager. “We captured them before they got into storm drains or streets. We had a lot of spills that were 1-gallon, 5-gallon. What impact do they have on the environment?”
Scott said that the district was already working to upgrade its system when Baykeeper filed the suit, and it spent $2 million defending itself, a cost that ratepayers must bear. Baykeeper argued that the district reported more than 40,000 gallons of sewage spilled in recent years, and that often the threat of a lawsuit or an actual suit is needed to speed repairs.
Either way, West Bay is cleaning up. The district had a spill rate of 26 spills per 100 miles of pipe in 2008—three times the Bay Area average—and last year reduced that to eight spills per hundred miles.