Cities under pressure to curb sewage deluge

A watchdog group’s legal campaign to reduce overflows from public sewer systems is forcing San Mateo County agencies to make millions of dollars in upgrades that are pushing sewer rates higher. 

San Francisco Baykeeper filed eight lawsuits against county agencies during the past two years for allowing discharges of untreated sewage.  
The watchdog group said the effects of aging sewer infrastructure are evident — when heavy rains hit last January, there were almost 
30 spills from different cities on the Peninsula totaling more than 200,000 gallons, according to 
“It’s a regionwide problem, this deferred maintenance, this out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality,” said Jason Flanders, Baykeeper’s staff attorney. 
As the rainy season approaches, the cities are under pressure to control overflows and establish long-term improvement plans. 
Burlingame, Hillsborough, San Carlos, Millbrae and the county have all approved settlements with Baykeeper that require annual reductions in sewer overflows. Lawsuits are still pending against San Bruno, South San Francisco and the West Bay Sanitary District. 
In San Carlos, officials are installing flow meters in sewage pipelines to monitor how much rain makes it into the system and to determine where leaks need to be fixed, Public Works Director Robert Weil said.
The city recently bought a hydro-flush sewer cleaning truck for $332,000 and hired a firm to clean and inspect the entire 105-mile system in San Carlos at a cost of up to $629,000, which was lower than the $800,000 budget for the work. 
Officials have incurred ongoing costs of $568,000 — including hiring new staff — which caused sewer rates to increase 7 percent to $562, double what they were four years ago. The Baykeeper settlement requires discharges to be reduced from around 60 per year to four by 2017. 
“People’s sewer rates are going up, but they’re getting something for it,” Weil said. “We didn’t really have a choice, but the investment is 
paying off.”
Hillsborough already knows that it needs at least $13 million in work, including an $11 million project to improve a large sewer main that runs between several jurisdictions. 
The city has already used video cameras to look for leaks in 70 of its 116 miles of pipes, which will help reduce overflows from rainwater, Public Works Director Martha DeBry said. 
The city — which is under a separate order from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce its sewer discharges — already has the highest sewer rates in the Bay Area at $1,658 annually.
“We’re trying to make the most cost-effective choices we can,” DeBry said. “It’s onerous.”
If the cities do not reach their reduction targets, 
Baykeeper could drag them back to court or seek fines, “but our primary focus is just getting systems fixed,” Flanders said. “We want to make sure the program stays on track.” 


Flushing facts
  • 12 million gallons of sewage spilled, as reported by Bay Area cities last January 
  • 200,000 gallons of sewage spilled as reported by San Mateo County cities last January
  • 15,000 miles of privately owned sewer lateral lines in Bay Area
  • 17,000 miles of publicly owned sewer pipes in Bay Area
Tips for preventing sewage spills 
At home
  • Minimize water use when it’s raining. Wait to wash clothes or run the dishwasher until the rain stops to lessen the burden on the sanitary system. Reduce water use by installing low-flow toilets and showerheads, and turn off the water when you shave or brush your teeth.
  • Dispose of household chemicals and automotive fluids properly, not down household drains or curbside storm drains. Anything you put down sinks and storm drains can end up in local creeks and the Bay or ocean.
  • Do not put fats, oils or grease down drains. These substances clog both your plumbing and the sewer system, causing backups.
On your property
  • Inspect your sewer clean-out. The clean-out typically is a small pipe, about 4 inches in diameter, used to access the lateral line for cleaning. Make sure the cap to the clean-out pipe is on and has not been damaged, and replace it if necessary to prevent rainwater from entering the sewer system.
  • Have your lateral line inspected and replaced if necessary, or urge your landlord to do so. A lateral line connects the pipes in your house to the main city lines. 
  • Avoid planting trees and shrubs near your lateral line. Plant roots are one of the most common causes of sewer line problems.
  • Eliminate any connections between your storm sewer pipes and sanitary sewer pipes. Disconnect downspouts and sump pumps if they are connected to the sanitary sewer system. These connections cause spills and are illegal.
Source: San Francisco Baykeeper



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