Slowing the flow 

The flow of untreated sewage that pours into the Bay every rainy season could finally be curtailed by a new state law and a string of lawsuits.

For decades, aging Bay Area infrastructure has led annually to massive sewage spills — and scores of smaller spills — from facilities in the North, East and South Bay and in San Francisco.

More than 170,000 gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage overflowed in the Bay Area during 70 separate incidents over two weeks in late January, California Integrated Water Quality System Project figures show.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and local nonprofits have launched lawsuits against multiple sanitary and utilities districts and municipalities in a bid to end the spills, many of which could violate the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The spills normally occur when storm-water infiltrates sewer systems and overloads and overwhelms pipes and sewage treatment plants, causing them to overflow.

Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, nutrients and metals slide during such overflows into the Bay, either directly into the water or by washing from drains over roads and footpaths, where they impact wildlife, fishing, kite-surfing and other human activities.

“You get toxic algae blooms, changes in oxygen levels and other problems caused by the increased nutrient load,” Save The Bay political director Stephen Knight said. “When people touch, inhale or ingest sewage-contaminated water, it can cause rashes, ear and eye infections.”

The stormwater also washes fuel, oil and similar toxins from streets and sidewalks into the overflowing sewer system.

Under Save The Bay’s Clean Bay Project, the nonprofit is working with cities all around the Bay Area to help them enact Bay-friendly municipal policies, Knight said.

For example, the nonprofit is working with municipalities in an effort to force or help property owners repair lateral lines that run from their buildings into the sewer system, according to Knight.

The little-known laterals tend to be poorly maintained and often allow stormwater to seep into sewage systems during heavy rain.

“A number of jurisdictions around the state and in the Bay Area are requiring lateral line inspection and repair on transfer of the property,” Knight said.

The San Francisco Baykeeper began launching lawsuits last year against scores of sanitation districts as part of a concerted campaign to slow the disgusting flow. The EPA has launched its own legal actions through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Seeping sewage

Sewage overflowed in 70 separate incidents in the Bay Area during a two-week period in January. Here are the biggest spills per county:

Contra Costa County
Date: Jan. 20
Location: Point Isabel Wet Weather Facility
Gallons spilled: 50,590,000

Alameda County
Date: Jan. 20
Location: Oakport Wet Weather Facility
Gallons spilled: 39,000,000

San Mateo County
Date: Jan. 19
Location: El Camino Real at Hillsdale Shopping Center
Gallons spilled: 63,750

Marin County
Date: Jan. 18
Location: 10 Libertyship Way
Gallons spilled: 40,000

San Francisco County
Date: Jan. 25
Location: West end of Crissy Field
Gallons spilled: 18,000

Bay Area agencies adopt distinct approaches to sewage overflows

South Bay
There is no overarching authority that owns or manages sewage collection and treatment systems on the Peninsula, but many of the cities’ and districts’ sewer systems are interconnected.

In response to ongoing sewage overflows, San Francisco Baykeeper launched a series of lawsuits against a handful of individual agencies.

The nonprofit recently secured settlement agreements or decrees in three cases that will require San Mateo County, Burlingame, Hillsborough and Burlingame Hills Sewer Maintenance District to take steps to improve their systems to reduce spills.

Burlingame, for example, agreed to build a 1.15-million gallon basin at its water treatment plant by Sept. 1, 2011, and take
other steps to help keep sewage out of the Bay.

Additional complaints have been filed — or threatened in court documents to be filed — against Millbrae, San Carlos, San Bruno, South San Francisco and West Bay Sanitary District by the nonprofit for allegedly causing persistent sewage spills.

San Francisco
The City’s sewer system is unique in the Bay Area because it’s combined with the storm-water system, meaning massive amounts of diluted sewage must be treated every time it rains.

Huge storage and settling tanks ring The City, including beneath The Embarcadero, to help hold excess wastewater until treatment plants can catch up with the hefty storm-time workload.

Also, vegetation and additional pipes have been added to low-lying streets that were prone to flooding, such as those that occupy former creek beds.

The measures are among the steps taken by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission that helped reduce overflows from 80 per year in the 1980s to roughly 10 per year, spokesman Tyrone Jue said.

SFPUC staff has been working with other city agencies in recent years in an effort to develop strategies to replace pavement throughout The City with planted soil or pervious materials to help reduce the amount of rain that flows into the sewers, Jue said.

North Bay

A string of seven small agencies that oversee aging sewerage infrastructure in southern Marin County will be merged into a single entity, following passage last year of a state bill authored by Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman.

The approach will help bring accountability to sewer operations in the area, he said.

“Right now, there’s a bit of a circular firing squad,” Huffman said. “Everybody points fingers at everybody and nobody’s really to blame, yet every time it rains you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be a sewage spill.”

The mergers could also help bring “some economy of scale” to the agencies’ “mutual efforts to fix their leaky collection systems,” Huffman said.

The mergers will be guided by Marin’s Local Agency Formation Commission, according to executive officer Peter Banning.

“Consolidation is not very likely to be rolling all seven of them [sewer agencies] into one big ball — it’s likely to occur in pairs, step-by-step,” Banning said. “We will be putting together some alternatives and we will be earnestly seeking the cooperation and participation of the agencies in that effort.”

East Bay

Three East Bay Municipal Utility District-operated overflow sewage treatment plants treat rainwater-diluted sewage, but the treatment capacity is often exceeded during heavy storms.

Most of the sewage that overflowed in the Bay Area late last month escaped from these wet-weather facilities, but the district has little control over the masses of water that flow into the treatment centers.

Stormwater that overloads the wet-weather facilities infiltrates the sewers through aging pipelines and other facilities owned and maintained by Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont and the Stege Sanitary District.

The district reached a settlement agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and California State Water Resources Control Board that requires it to spend $2 million annually on sewer repair incentives and take other steps to reduce sewer spills from the facilities.

The arrangement creates complications because the utility district has no control over the pipes that create the problem.
In December, the EPA ordered the seven municipal sewage collection systems to take steps to work to address the issue.

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