Bay Crossings Article

Help Stop Sewage Pollution in San Francisco Bay

By 
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
From the March 2018 edition of Bay Crossings

If you discover a sewage spill in Oakland—or have reported a spill in the past to Oakland city officials—please report it to Baykeeper.

Sewage spilled into city streets generally ends up in San Francisco Bay. Spilled sewage is sometimes inappropriately washed down a nearby storm drain, or the sewage may be carried to the storm drain by rain. Most storm drains empty into the Bay, or creeks that flow to the Bay, with no filtering or treatment.

Under a legally-binding agreement with Baykeeper and the Environmental Protection Agency, Oakland is required to upgrade its sewer infrastructure in order to keep sewage pollution out of the Bay. City officials are supposed to report all spills to show whether the city is making progress. But recent news investigations found that Oakland officials failed to report spills of hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage and may have falsified data.

Raw sewage entering the Bay causes serious harm. Sewage contains bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. When windsurfers, swimmers, boaters, fishermen and others come in contact with water contaminated with raw sewage, it can cause persistent skin and sinus infections and painful stomach disorders. Sewage can also deplete oxygen in the Bay, threatening fish, seals, other sea creatures and plant life.

The primary cause of sewage pollution in the Bay is broken Bay Area sewer systems. That’s why, starting 15 years ago, Baykeeper sued Bay Area sewer agencies, including Oakland’s, with bad records for sewage spills. We secured legally-binding agreements requiring agencies serving 20 cities to repair leaky pipes, replace broken ones and upgrade sewage treatment plants on a year-by-year timetable.

Some cities have made real progress. For example, before Baykeeper took action, San Carlos’s sewer agency, over a five-year period, had spilled more than 62,000 gallons of raw sewage into neighborhoods, streets and the Bay. San Carlos has since made required repairs and is no longer illegally polluting the Bay with sewage.

But it’s hard to tell if Oakland has made similar progress. The initial news accounts indicate officials have withheld and falsified spill documents, which means their reports to us are wrong and based on incorrect information. So Baykeeper is asking the public to help us find out how much pollution Oakland’s sewer pipes are causing. We’ll use this information to hold Oakland accountable and exert pressure to repair the city’s sewer infrastructure and keep sewage out of the Bay.

Let us know about Oakland sewage spills from 2012 to the present by clicking “Report Pollution” at baykeeper.org, e-mailing hotline@baykeeper.org, or calling 1-800-KEEP-BAY (1-800-533-7229).

And even if you’re not in Oakland, you can help stop sewage pollution from any Bay Area location, using the tips below.

How You Can Prevent Sewage Pollution

  • Avoid putting fats, oils or grease down the drain. They clog both your plumbing and the sewer system, causing backups and sewage spills.
  • If you own a home, make sure the pipe that connects your home to the street sewer pipes isn’t causing sewage leaks. If it is, you can have it inspected and replaced. Contact your sewer agency to find out if they have pipe replacement assistance programs. EBMUD customers can find information at www.eastbaypsl.com.
  • Report sewage spills to city officials and to Baykeeper’s pollution hotline.
  • Support funding increases for upgrades of your local sewer system that keep pollution out of San Francisco Bay.

Photo by Joel Williams