Bay Crossings Article

Working to Keep Sewage Out of the Bay

Deb Self, Executive Director
From the April 2011 edition of Bay Crossings

At the time of this writing, this year’s rainy season had already brought nine million gallons of raw sewage to Bay Area waterways, and a stunning 125 million gallons of undertreated sewage from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) plants at Point Isabel and in Oakland.

Many people don’t realize that the Bay Area has such an old-fashioned public health threat. Sewage overflows can contain harmful bacteria, disease-causing pathogens, and toxic chemicals that hurt fish, sea lions, birds, and even swimmers in the Bay.

The spills and overflows are a direct result of long-deferred maintenance by cities throughout the Bay Area. Most of the cities surrounding San Francisco Bay have aging sewer infrastructure with cracked and leaking pipes that let in rain water, which leads to overflows at treatment plants. This situation also leads to sewage spills in neighborhoods, where backed up sewage erupts from manhole covers and then runs into storm drains that transport the raw sewage directly to the Bay. For the most part, Bay Area cities have delayed their capital improvement projects for years and abandoned routine maintenance work, making the problem even worse—and ultimately adding unnecessary costs.

To compel cities to engage with these essential public services, Baykeeper has brought a series of legal actions over the past decade to turn some of the worst performing sewage agencies in the Bay Area into some of the best. Recently, we reached a major milestone in United States v. City of Alameda, et. al—a lawsuit with EPA against the cities of Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, and the Stege Sanitary District, which serves El Cerrito, Kensington and the Richmond Annex.

Under an agreement lodged with the Federal Court last month, all of the cities have committed to drastically reducing their frequent sewer overflows by establishing aggressive inspection and maintenance programs and fixing broken pipes to stop infiltrated rain water from overwhelming EBMUD’s treatment plant. Ultimately, the agreement should stop the routine wet-weather overflows of hundreds of millions of gallons of undertreated wastewater into San Francisco Bay.

On the Peninsula, Baykeeper also settled lawsuits against the cities of San Carlos, Millbrae and South San Francisco in the past year. These three cities are now on a tight timeframe to invest tens of millions of dollars on system-wide improvements that will reduce the number of sewage spills and overflows to popular recreation areas in the South Bay, and create green jobs in the process. The cases also resulted in the cities providing a combined $975,000 in lieu of penalties to other local community groups for projects to improve water quality in the Bay Area.

Major sewage system upgrades are also underway in Richmond, Burlingame, and Hillsborough, Burlingame Hills and East Bay Municipal Utility District as a result of previous settlements with Baykeeper. Legal action is ongoing against the West Bay Sanitary District, which serves the cities of Menlo Park, Atherton, and Portola Valley, and areas of East Palo Alto, Woodside and unincorporated San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.