Sewage Spills

Sick of Sewage

The rainy season brings a big problem for San Francisco Bay: sewage spills.

Aging sewer pipes around the Bay Area are crumbling. And many cities have been ignoring the problem for decades. Large volumes of rain seep into these pipes, causing overflows that spill into streets, and the sewage then gets washed into the Bay.

When raw sewage spills into our streets and creeks, it exposes people to bacterial infections and illnesses. Untreated sewage also hosts a brew of contaminants that can kill fish in urban creeks, lower dissolved oxygen in the Bay, and prevent people from enjoying local waterways.

Reducing spills

Since 1996, Baykeeper has identified some of the worst sewage polluters and taken legal action.

And it’s made an impact. Baykeeper’s legally-binding agreements have required many Bay Area sewer agencies—which serve more than 20 cities around the Bay—to upgrade their dilapidated infrastructure. Under our agreements, sewer agencies are required to make repairs and improvements on a yearly timetable.

As a result, Bay Area sewer agencies have dramatically reduced their spills of raw sewage into San Francisco Bay. Some Bay Area sewer agencies are making progress that will keep sewage pollution out of the Bay in the future. And other agencies still need to do more to protect the Bay under their legal agreements with Baykeeper.

Agencies serving the cities of Hillsborough, Millbrae, San Bruno, and the West Bay Sanitary District, which covers Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other communities on the southern peninsula, have all made the required repairs and decreased Bay pollution. Richmond’s sewer agency is also making progress at reducing sewage spills.

Baykeeper will continue our legal action, and continue to monitor and enforce agreements requiring sewage spill reduction, until sewage pollution is no longer a problem for the Bay Area. Our goal is to create a San Francisco Bay that is safe for swimming and healthy for wildlife.

Sewage warning sign along the Bay shoreline
Sewage spills can force shoreline areas to close to the public. Our goal is to create a San Francisco Bay that is safe for swimming and healthy for wildlife (Photo: Baykeeper)

Here’s how you can help

  • Minimize using dishwashers and washing machines or taking long showers during heavy storms.
  • Don’t flush wipes or other items that could clog pipes.
  • Have your sewer cleanout inspected and repaired if needed.
  • Have your home’s sewer line inspected and replaced if necessary.
  • Avoid planting trees and shrubs near your home’s sewer line.
  • Eliminate connections between your home’s storm drains and sewer pipes.
  • Wipe fats, oils and grease from dishes and pans, and dispose of in the trash or compost, before rinsing in the sink.
Pan pouring oil down the drain with an X over it
Help prevent clogged pipes and sewage spills—don’t pour fats of any kind down the drain! (Image: EBMUD)

How to Check Bay Water Quality

The first place to check for updates about water quality in the Bay is your local wastewater utility, which often reports major spills and sampling results. For example, in San Francisco, SFPUC offers a public tool that reports the most recent water quality as well as when the sample was collected. Another handy resource is The Swim Guide and the East Bay Regional Park District’s water quality page.

For any resource, take note of the date of sampling results to make sure you aren’t relying on old data (agencies don’t sample regularly in all locations and sometimes websites are out of date).

And the number one rule to stay safe from high bacteria is to avoid getting in the Bay when it’s raining and to stay out of the water for at least 48 hours after a big storm.

Take Action

Tell Sunnyvale and Mountain View to stop their Sewage Pollution

Over several years, Baykeeper’s field team sampled the stormwater runoff coming off the streets of Sunnyvale and Mountain View. We found that the cities’ runoff contained levels of E. coli bacteria that were as much as 50 times what’s legally allowed – and these discharges were polluting local creeks and rivers. So, we filed a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act to get the cities to stop contaminating these waters, which are home to fish and wildlife and provide recreational enjoyment for many residents.

Rather than work with Baykeeper to quickly resolve their pollution problems, Sunnyvale and Mountain View have denied responsibility under the law and dragged the litigation out for three years. Despite being fairly progressive Bay Area cities, they’re making decisions behind closed doors to undermine the Clean Water Act – decisions that could harm the environment and local residents.

Most recently, the cities decided to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Sackett v. EPA, which limited the scope of the Clean Water Act The cities’ lawyers decided to argue that the Sackett decision meant that South Bay waterways, such as Stevens Creek and Calabazas Creek, shouldn’t be protected under the Clean Water Act either. It was a radical misapplication of the Supreme Court ruling, and fortunately the judge in our case rejected their arguments

The city councils are also using Baykeeper’s pending litigation to make these big decisions during closed session without public knowledge or input. They are not being transparent in their decision making or representing the interests of their residents. As Sunnyvale resident and kayaker Stephen Meier recently told his city council: “It seems like you guys are making some monumental decisions in the dark…to undermine the EPA and the Clean Water Act.” Adding, “If I fall out of my kayak and take in a mouthful of sewage, I’m going to get sick: Why do you not want us to have EPA protection?”

The only thing that Sunnyvale and Mountain View have to do is the right thing. They should protect local creeks and residents by upgrading their stormwater systems to reduce pollution.

Send a to ask the cities to do the right thing and protect local creeks from pollution!