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Could the Baykeeper Lawsuit Have Been Prevented?

Now that the city has reached settlements over a lawsuit San Francisco Baykeeper filed because of San Bruno's high number of sewer spills, San Bruno Patch takes a closer look and asks: Could the city have done more to stop all of those spills?

The costly last year over its sewer spills caused a lot of frustration with city leaders.

Despite the fact that the city was cited for 148 sewer sanitary overflows, or SSOs, from 2004 to 2009—an exorbitant amount for any city—City Council members and city officials have said that the city has been aggressive in eliminating its sewer spills and diligent with improving its aging sewer infrastructure system.

But a closer look at the settlements (click on links), which involved San Francisco Baykeeper and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, raises questions about whether the city did enough to stop all of those spills.

In the water control board’s complaint, it noted that the city’s sewer spills were mainly caused by a collection system being used with insufficient capacity, pipelines failing due to aging infrastructure and numerous contractor errors—all issues for which the city is responsible.

“These SSO events could have been prevented or mitigated with the rehabilitation/replacement of sewer pipelines and the implementation of procedures to adequately inspect contractor work,” the complaint stated.

Ultimately, residents will end up paying the price with steadily increased sewer rates.

So what happened here? More importantly, could the city have done more to prevent the issue from being so severe?

Deficiencies in the system

After months of negotiations, the city reached settlements with Baykeeper and the water control board in July 2011 for $271,000 in fees and $642,167 in fines respectively.

On top of that, the city was ordered to spend $8.7 million to improve its infrastructure so that future sewage spills are reduced.

In assessing its fine against the city, the regional water board noted a number of deficiencies in the way the city had been handling its sewer spills.

For example, a number of the sewer spills were caused by fat, oil, grease, roots and debris that blocked up pipes. The city could have been more aggressive with controlling those blockages, the water board’s complaint said.

The city had also abandoned a cleaning and inspection program—a collaboration with the city of South San Francisco—that could have increased the number of miles of sewer pipe per year that was cleaned, the complaint said.

The regional water board also said the city could have invested more money per year in addressing sewer spills as compared with other cities.

A 1997 cease and desist order required the city to invest $1.84 million per year for 10 years to get the sewer system up to par. However, the city only invested $1.4 million annually—nearly $500,000 short a year of what was required. Meanwhile, sewer rates were raised.

When the council announced the settlements at its July 26 meeting, council members said they were frustrated by the severe penalties against the city because the city had been taking its sewer pipe maintenance and replacement efforts very seriously.

“By all means, we have been trying to minimize these types of occurrences,” Councilman Ken Ibarra said at the meeting. “I just don't want the public to think we've been financially slapped on the wrist for something that we did wrong.”

History of deferred maintenance

City Manager Connie Jackson said that part of the problem with the city’s sewer system is that, before the mid-1990s, the council had a history of deferring maintenance in capital infrastructure projects. So a portion of the problem with sewer spills was out of the city’s control, she said.

It wasn’t until the late-1990s that the city realized it needed to take a more aggressive approach to dealing with its infrastructure, which in some areas was nearing 100 years old, she said. The biggest effort was approving the city’s first sewer and water master plans in 2000, she said.

“It was at that time that the City Council sharpened its focus on the need to develop a more accurate understanding of the utility systems' capital improvement and replacement requirements and a work program to more aggressively address those needs,” Jackson said in an email.  

Jackson said the city has taken a number of steps over the last decade since the completion of the master plan to address maintenance and improvement needs in the system. Overall, the goal has been to replace old pipes over time while repairing problem areas in the short term. But reducing the sewer spills completely to zero—which is required by law—is a difficult goal to reach, Jackson said.

“While we have made a great deal of progress,” she said, “we are still catching up to where we need to be in order to reliably minimize the incidence of SSOs.”

To the city’s credit, the regional water board said in its complaint that the city has shown a commitment to improving the sewer system, which played a role in minimizing the total fines the city has the pay for the settlements.

Rates could be increased

The downside to the situation is that, at the end of the day, residents are getting stuck with the bill.

In 2009, the city prepared a 10-year sewer rate forecast for the council to consider. For the first three years of that plan, the council approved a 10 percent annual increase in sewer rates.

With the council set this year to discuss the plan for the next round of sewer rate increases, it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that the rate increases will remain the same as they were in the past.

As required by the settlements, to aggressively reduce the number of sewer spills. Rates could be increased even more to pay for that work.

“Our goal is to keep (the rates) as low as possible,” Jackson said.

An unfair burden?

Some residents argue, however, that their rates are already high enough—at $46.70 per household, San Bruno’s sewer rates are above the county average of $43 per household.

The city also needs to take in consideration, they say, that residents are already burdened enough here. San Bruno’s median household income—about $75,000—is only higher than four other cities in the 20-city county.

Mayor Jim Ruane said he understands residents’ frustration. He is frustrated himself, he said, that a significant portion of the settlements has to be spent on paying for legal fees and other expenses that could otherwise have been put to use in fixing the city’s sewer system.

Unfortunately, he said, raising rates is the only way.

“This council has been very aggressive for many years to try to get on top of this and we will continue to do so,” Ruane said by phone. “SSOs are now down considerably (as of 2011, the city only had 18 SSOs), and it’s our goal to take care of the situation.

“Unfortunately, it means increasing rates. But we have to do it now. Otherwise, it compounds and you never get caught up.”

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Joe Capote February 25, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Excellent article, Martin. I have always wondered about the benefits of watchdog group lawsuits to achieve these goals. Strongarming cash-strapped cities with fines/fees in order to address SSO's seems like something the water control board should be doing without watchdog groups like Baykeeper. Cities, however, should be doing their part. Last year, a Baykeeper lawsuit forced Millbrae to enforce a decades old mandate that all homeowners check and repair broken sewer laterals at every point of sale, something the city had largely ignored since it put the mandate in place in the 1970's. Replacing aging infrastructure is one thing, but if cities have proactive ways to prevent SSO's that they simply are not taking advantage of, that is another. It still seems to me that the necessity of third party watchdog groups to discover and enforce these issues is wasteful, it's my understanding the water control board has systems in place for the reporting and monitoring of SSO's.
Peter Carey February 25, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Very good article Martin. You've answered many of the questions this resident had on this issue.
Marty Medina September 22, 2013 at 08:46 PM
Although this article is over a year old it is still relevant. Many voters have asked me why the water and sewer rates increases are so high. One major reason is the City Council's failure to adequately maintain the sewer system are ordered. "A 1997 cease and desist order required the city to invest $1.84 million per year for 10 years to get the sewer system up to par. However, the city only invested $1.4 million annually—nearly $500,000 short a year of what was required. Meanwhile, sewer rates were raised." Marty Medina San Bruno City Council Candidate 2013

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