Stormy Weather

Feb 3, 2023
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

What is it called when two 100-year storms hit the Bay Area in one week? Is it a 200-year storm? A statistical anomaly? Or the new normal? No matter what we call it, we saw that our stormwater and sewer agencies weren’t prepared for it when our streets flooded, and millions of gallons of sewage flowed directly into the Bay during January’s storms.

The Bay Area’s infrastructure is a relic of the past, when these huge storm events were rare. The climate crisis was barely on the radar when I first started reviewing stormwater and wastewater permits over two decades ago, but it’s the reality we face today.

Many stormwater pipes are too narrow to hold heavy flows, so during big storms, contaminated water floods our streets and neighborhoods with oil, trash, pesticides, and other pollutants. Many of the sewage pipes are also old and cracked, so the stormwater leaks right into them. During heavy rains this excess flow overwhelms the treatment plants and forces wastewater agencies to discharge raw sewage—which contains harmful bacteria and viruses—into the Bay.

As we saw recently, it’s a real mess.

Sadly, the neighborhoods most at risk are those closest to the shoreline where the pollution enters the Bay. These are frequently the same communities that already endure pollution from legacy toxic sites, oil refineries, and other ongoing industrial activity. The unfiltered chemicals and pharmaceuticals in wastewater and stormwater can also cause generational harm to the Bay’s fish and wildlife.

When it’s not raining, it’s easy to forget about the problem because stormwater and wastewater pipes are underground—out of sight and out of mind. City leaders tend to invest instead in more visible projects, like fixing potholes or erecting new public buildings. The worst of this year’s storms may be over, but without investing in our underground infrastructure, we'll be doomed to repeat this scenario every single time there's a big storm. And it will only get worse with climate-driven extreme weather and rising water levels.

We have to keep the solutions front-of-mind. Homeowners can repair their private sewage lines to make sure they’re not leaking or allowing rainwater into the system. Cities can upgrade old underground sewer and stormwater pipes. Cities can also invest in green infrastructure, or natural areas where floodwaters are captured, filtered, and slowly percolate into the ground. Wastewater treatment agencies can upgrade their facilities to improve water reuse and recycling, so they’re not overwhelmed. And we can all do our part by supporting necessary fee increases to help pay for utility upgrades that make living around the Bay feasible.

By looking forward in a comprehensive way and acting now, we can relieve the climate burden on our communities and reduce pollution in the Bay. This will require dedicated funding and political will at the local, state, and federal levels. That’s why Baykeeper and our allies are working together to keep the issue front and center and hold the Bay Area’s sewage and stormwater agencies accountable. You can help by voicing your support to help the Bay Area be better prepared for stormy weather.

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