25th Anniversary Flash from the Past: Preventing 30-Million-Gallon Sewage Overflows into the Bay

Aug 11, 2014

In 2000, Baykeeper and a coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups won crucial changes in the redevelopment of San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. In a major win for San Francisco Bay and the Mission Bay neighborhood, the changes prevented annual overflows of 30 million gallons of sewage and contaminated rainwater into the Bay, and improved habitat along Islais Creek.

This year Baykeeper celebrates 25 years of successful action to protect San Francisco Bay from pollution. In honor of our 25th anniversary, we are highlighting key victories for the Bay over the course of our history, including this campaign to achieve significant protection for the Bay when a city neighborhood was redeveloped.

The 300-acre Mission Bay development project on a former industrial area near San Francisco’s eastern shore included thousands of housing units, a University of California campus, and office space. The developer, Catellus, originally put forth a design that called for routing the neighborhood’s sewage, along with storm water that runs off from streets and buildings, into the existing sewer system. This was a typical practice, because San Francisco has one of the few sewer systems in the Bay Area that handles both sewage and storm water.

However, when both sewage and storm water flow through the same pipes during heavy rains, it can cause massive overflows into the Bay, because rainwater can overwhelm the pipes’ capacity. Overflows of sewage mixed with rainwater from the Mission Bay neighborhood were already going into the Bay, even before redevelopment. If the development had gone through as originally proposed, these sewage-contaminated overflows would have continued, at a rate Catellus estimated as an average of 30 million gallons per year.

To win neighborhood development that would better protect the Bay, Baykeeper spearheaded the Alliance for a Clean Waterfront, composed of San Francisco neighborhood and environmental groups. Mike Lozeau, then Executive Director of Baykeeper, recalled that we reached an agreement with Catellus “using the rallying of feisty neighborhood groups and level-headed negotiation.”

Catellus agreed to change the design of Mission Bay to separate the new development’s storm water from San Francisco’s combined sewer system, preventing overflows of rainwater mixed with sewage. The development also included state-of-the-art storm water filtration systems at five storm water outfalls to the Bay.

The original Mission Bay development plans had also called for maintaining unsightly riprap along Islais Creek, which limited habitat for birds and other animals. As a result of negotiations with Baykeeper and the Alliance for a Clean Waterfront, Catellus agreed to create wetland habitat along the creek-side public park.

After some initial mistrust between the development corporation and the environmentalists, Catellus management realized that the changes Baykeeper sought made a lot of sense and actually reduced project costs. The resulting neighborhood design provides both improvement of wildlife habitat and substantial protection for the Bay.

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