Seven years after San Carlos promised to reduce the number of city sewer overflows in a settlement agreement with San Francisco Baykeeper, the nonprofit has deemed the city’s sewer system improvements meet its standards for protecting Bay Area waterways.
Increasing the size of more than 18,000 feet of sewer main pipes, rehabilitating over 27,000 feet of them, and rehabilitating and replacing 100 manholes, are among the improvements the city has taken on since 2010, when Baykeeper filed a lawsuit against the city for endangering residents and Bay Area waterways with sewage overflows.
Erica Maharg, Baykeeper’s managing attorney, confirmed the city’s current rate of eight sanitary sewer overflows, or SSOs, in 2016 and three to date in 2017 is a far cry from the 93 the city logged in 2007, 66 the city logged in 2008 and 68 the city logged in 2009.
“When you see something that high, you know there is something that is very wrong with the system,” she said.
Marharg said the numbers San Carlos was logging were unacceptably high compared to the California average of 5.4 annual SSOs for every 100 miles, causing Baykeeper to file a lawsuit against San Carlos and several other Bay Area cities for possible violations of the Clean Water Act. Baykeepers is now commending the city’s efforts to work with the nonprofit to find strategies for reducing the city’s number of sewage spills, which she said is now one of the lowest in the Bay Area.
Mayor Bob Grassilli, who was on the City Council when Baykeepers issued the complaint against San Carlos, said the city was aware of the issues stemming from its aging system in the years leading up to 2010, but budget cuts following the recession in 2008 had made prioritizing those issues challenging. Grassilli said the nonprofit’s consent decree coincided with a city planning process to determine how to upgrade the city’s sewer system and that the nonprofit’s efforts helped the city form an ambitious but manageable improvement plan.
“We were barely trying to keep ourselves above water,” he said. “But Baykeepers put our feet to the fire.”
Public Works Director Jay Walter said the decree helped spur the development of a comprehensive master plan for the city’s sewer system while at the same time implementing much-needed upgrades. In some areas where the city’s sewer pipes were more than 75 years old, expanding sewer pipe size enabled the system, especially on the city’s lower-elevation east side where a pump station is located, to handle high volumes of sewage. In the close to five years Walter has led the city’s Public Works Department, he has seen all members of his department become invested in meeting the terms of the agreement.
“It’s sort of like all hands on deck,” he said.
Calling on the expertise of the department’s engineers, maintenance workers and administrators, the department has conducted an overhaul of the city’s long-term sewer system planning and streamlined its maintenance process.
Walter said a major outcome of the effort was the development of a capacity assurance program, which allowed staff to identify sections of the city’s sewers that needed to be enlarged and repaired. Filming sections of city’s system of sewer pipes provided Walter’s staff with data to create an 11-year rehabilitation plan, which he hopes will afford the city the opportunity to better anticipate repairs and manage costs. Walter also added two full-time maintenance workers to his staff, allowing the city to perform inspections, periodic cleanings and respond to emergencies, such as overflows, within 30 minutes to an hour.
Walter said the more than $20 million spent in the last seven years to improve the system could not be made without residents stepping up to foot the bill. He said improvements to the sewer system are not funded by the city’s general fund, but rather fees paid for by residents. Walter said rate increases approved by the City Council in 2013, which increased flat-rate sewer fees some 55 percent to 60 percent over three years for a single-family home, made it possible for the city to fund the improvements.
“It’s been a real collaborative team effort, and the community has been behind us,” he said.
Councilman Mark Olbert acknowledged that while there was some pushback from the community when the fee increase was first proposed, the Baykeeper decree made residents aware of the need for cities to invest in infrastructure. Olbert said it is easy for residents to forget about the need to invest in infrastructure projects even when systems don’t show obvious signs of wear and tear.
“I’m proud of the fact that the community was willing to step up,” he said.
For Marharg and her team at Baykeeper, San Carlos’ efforts can be seen as an example for how cities can make improvements to what can, at times, appear to be daunting infrastructure projects. She said the city’s efforts have paid off, resulting in far fewer sewer spills during an especially rainy winter when over 12 million gallons of sewage have spilled into Bay Area waterways between October and February.
“San Carlos is a great example of a city that recognized that they had a problem with their sewer system and took that as an opportunity to invest in that system and protect their communities from sewer spills,” she said.
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