No patchwork fix for Bay sewage spills

Raw sewage spills into San Francisco Bay have again been making news. Those powerful rainstorms at the end of January triggered two semisecret major overflows in southern Marin County, spilling at least 5 million gallons of contaminated wastewater that are a prime suspect in the deaths of hundreds of water birds. And just yesterday morning, some 1,500 gallons of untreated sewage from San Quentin State Prison spilled into the Bay.

In addition, the Baykeeper environmental nonprofit began its new Sick of Sewage campaign by filing a federal lawsuit against the city of Burlingame on charges of not updating its inadequate 80-year-old sewer system quickly enough. Baykeeper alleged that Burlingame had 198 spills since 2002 and has spewed some 10 million gallons of waste into the Bay during the last 16 years.

This renewed focus on sewage’s ever-present threat to the Bay is not a bad thing, if it helps bring about the strong regional action needed to effectively safeguard the sensitive shoreline. San Francisco Bay is an irreplaceable regional treasure that helped magnetize development of the cities that now totally surround its shores. Our expanding population of millions generates billions of gallons of wastewater — raw or partially treated sewage teeming with bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic chemicals.

Protecting the Bay from this daily onslaught of liquid garbage is a nine-county crazy quilt of sewage agencies and their wastewater treatment plants. Coordination is overseen by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state Environmental Protection Agency, among other administrative bodies.

That does not appear to be a strong enough structure to remedy what has obviously become a regional problem becoming worse as more and more city sewage facilities enter old age during an extra-tight budget period. Regional problems are best attacked on a regional level. Perhaps sewage spills could be better prevented by a more centralized authority with resources to make timely inspections, enforce upgrades of outmoded equipment, negotiate strongly with state and federal jurisdictions, and coordinate bond measures for additional funds when truly needed.

Burlingame’s leadership is fully aware that its city has an inadequate sewage system that habitually overflows onto local streets during major rainstorms. In 2006, City Hall pushed hard for a $44 million bond measure to fund much-needed storm system improvements. Voters agreed their sewers needed a thorough upgrade, but they rejected the price tag. As of now, Burlingame is budgeting $3.7 million per year for pipeline replacement and has redone one-fifth of its 100 miles of sewers. Public Works insists that simultaneously making any bigger changes would tear up a crippling percentage of city streets and pipe routes.

Under the Clean Water Act, Burlingame could theoretically be fined some $5.5 million for its alleged 198 violations. Baykeeper’s hope in the federal lawsuit is to have the city invest any imposed fines on repairing its sewers faster. The Examiner’s hope would be for a pretrial settlement that satisfactorily addresses the sewer upgrades without wasting money on unnecessary court costs.

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