Making Waves at 35: Sick of Sewage

Sewage warning sign along the Bay shoreline

In celebration of our 35th year of defending San Francisco Bay, each month we’re sharing significant victories that we’ve won together and highlighting how they’re still making waves today.

In the early 2000s, a frustrated Richmond resident called Baykeeper’s pollution hotline. She reported that a city sewer main was spilling raw sewage into the street, nearby storm drains, and into her backyard. So, our field team investigated and our legal team researched—and the Sick of Sewage campaign was born.

Much of the Bay Area’s sewage infrastructure is over a century old and needs repair. When a storm hits, cracked sewage pipes often allow rain in, causing them to overflow. Wastewater agencies get overwhelmed by the water and often have no choice but to release partially treated or raw sewage into the Bay.

These polluted discharges contain bacteria and chemicals that can make swimmers and wildlife sick. They also contain the pollutants that cause harmful algae to bloom in the Bay and kill fish. Yet, cities and sewer agencies often defer maintenance and upgrades to pipes and plants due to high costs and competing priorities.

That’s why Baykeeper has methodically identified the Bay Area’s largest sewage polluters and addressed them one-by-one. Over the course of the last 20 years of the campaign, our attorneys and sewage experts have helped more than 20 Bay Area cities and sewer agencies. Some notable examples include:

  • San Bruno: Baykeeper compelled the sewer agency to upgrade its pipes and reduce its sewage spill rate and spill volume by more than 90%, keeping harmful pollution from making its way into the Bay and flowing into neighborhoods.
  • Richmond: Baykeeper’s legal action initially led the city to reduce its sewage spills by 50%, but since that wasn’t good enough, we got the agency to further agree to replace over 30 miles of failing pipes on a strict timetable.
  • East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and its nine satellite cities, including Berkeley and Oakland: In a Baykeeper case that the EPA and the Regional Water Board joined, EBMUD and the cities have committed to a timetable to replace outdated pipes and infrastructure, which will significantly reduce releases of raw sewage into the Bay.
  • San Francisco: And in the latest news that broke earlier this month, we’re holding San Francisco accountable for being the region’s biggest sewage polluter, discharging on average over 1.2 billion gallons of mixed stormwater runoff and raw sewage into the Bay every year.

Baykeeper will continue legal action and advocacy until the biggest sewage polluters in the Bay Area improve their systems. This work has made waves across the Bay—and your support over the years has made it all possible. You can learn about these victories and more in the timeline, below.