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San Francisco’s Sewage Agency Also Needs Some Treatment

San Francisco taxpayers and ratepayers are footing the bill in the fight against tougher sewage controls on its oceanside outlets since 2019.

•••••••••• September 1, 2023 ••••••••••

Jeff Ruch
Jeff Ruch

As San Francisco Bay flirts with a second year of toxic red algae blooms and our oceanside beaches rate among the dirtiest in the state Five of the dirtiest California beaches are in the S.F. Bay Area (sfchronicle.com), the city just suffered an embarrassing water pollution-related court loss. On August 1, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had to abide by stricter sewage controls measures ordered by the state and upheld by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. SF isn’t doing enough to prevent sewage pollution, court rules (sfchronicle.com).

The City has been fighting tougher sewage controls on its oceanside outlets since they were first ordered back in 2019. It has waged this multi-year battle with attorneys paid for both by taxpayers and ratepayers against state and federal attorneys also paid by taxpayers.

Setting aside the legalities, the underlying facts in this case paint a shameful picture. In rejecting the City’s appeal, the Court cited annual surveys between 2008 and 2014 that show 20% of recreational beach users were in contact with waters containing combined sewage overflows following storms. Shoreline water sampling frequently exceeded water-quality criteria for at least one bacteria indicator, with most of those samples associated with combined sewage overflows where the only wastewater treatment was “skimming of floatable solids” prior to discharge.

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Further, the Court found that the pollution control measures the City had been so vigorously contesting had been routinely applied to other municipalities that discharge into marine waters going back decades.”

A major part of the case concerned the City’s refusal to update its Long-Term Sewage Overflow Control Plan that had been promulgated back in 1991. Not surprisingly, both state and federal authorities had found this thirty-plus-year-old plan failed to “reflect current circumstances” and did even not incorporate the findings of several of the PUC’s own field studies and planning documents dating back years.

Further, the Court found that the pollution control measures the City had been so vigorously contesting had been routinely applied to other municipalities that discharge into marine waters going back decades.

Stayed pending the outcome of this case is the San Francisco PUC’s challenge to an order by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board directing the PUC to track and report sewage overflows into city streets and private homes. SFPUC Cleanup and Abatement Order (peer.org) That case will likely now proceed with results similarly adverse to the City. By fighting this the City is essentially fighting for the right to dump sewage onto its own citizens.

These legal developments are on top of the PUC’s agreement in April 3, 2023, to pay $236,500 in fines to the state to compensate for approximately 50 “acute toxicity violations” and effluent exceedances. Settlement Agreement and Stipulated Administrative Civil Liability for the City and County of San Francisco (peer.org) Besides this, the City is the subject of other ongoing investigations into additional violations of their current permits.

Notably, none of the funds the PUC has expended to combat water pollution enforcement actions brought by state and federal agencies went to finance fixes that would actually reduce harmful overflows pumped into the Bay and nearby ocean waters.

SF Bay Red Tide
SF Bay Red Tide Photo courtesy AP
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The PUC is by far the largest polluter of San Francisco Bay, a sensitive waterbody already plagued by excess discharge of nutrients. It needs leadership dedicated to safeguarding the health of the Bay rather than merely protecting its own bureaucratic prerogatives.”

The PUC’s pollution problems are internal, as well.  This June, the PUC’s General Manager was convicted on federal bribery and fraud charges. The current General Manager, Dennis Herrera, is the former City Attorney who was the mastermind behind the PUC’s less than stellar legal strategy. Moreover, Mr. Herrera has no background in water or sewage systems.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco PUC has also recently proposed a series of big rate hikes for the next three years, averaging about 8.4% per year. It is not known what portion of any increase will go for legal expenses. In response, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has initiated an audit review of PUC financing.   

Perhaps, sometime more than a financial audit is in order. The PUC is by far the largest polluter of San Francisco Bay, a sensitive waterbody already plagued by excess discharge of nutrients. It needs leadership dedicated to safeguarding the health of the Bay rather than merely protecting its own bureaucratic prerogatives.   

Jeff Ruch is an attorney and the Pacific Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) an organization that aids government whistleblowers on environmental and public health issues.

Aaugust 31, 2023

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