Time to Pay for Piping

Sewage Counts

Santa Barbara City residents recently received notice of a proposal to raise sewer rates, in part as a result of a lawsuit against the city brought by Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. However, there has been some confusion about the reasons behind the proposed rate increase and the lawsuit, so we want to set the record straight.

Since our inception in 1999, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper has been working hard to identify and address the root causes of pollution in Santa Barbara’s creeks and beaches. One of those, unfortunately, is sewage. Like many other cities in California and nationwide, Santa Barbara’s sewage pipes are old and deteriorating. As a result, the city has suffered a disturbingly high number of sewage spills above-ground as well as a chronic problem of “exfiltration” – leakage of sewage out of cracked and broken sewer pipes underground, and into storm drains that lead to our creeks and beaches.

Channelkeeper has worked diligently over the past 12 years to get the city to address these problems, which threaten public health, the environment, and our beach tourism and recreation-dependent economy. Recently, the city did take some steps in the right direction, including accelerating its sewer-pipe cleaning schedule, which brought the number of sewage spills down from a record high of 44 in 2009 (three times higher than the statewide average) to 35 in 2010 and 12 in 2011.

Channelkeeper recognizes and applauds this effort. Unfortunately, however, accelerated pipe cleaning is not a long-term solution that will fix the city’s aging and leaking sewer pipes. So, after more than a decade of research, outreach, education, and advocacy, Channelkeeper filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against the city in early 2011 to deliver the more comprehensive and proactive fix that is sorely needed.

We spent nearly a year negotiating a workable solution with the city, and together we formulated one. Channelkeeper and the city agreed in March to a settlement of our lawsuit which puts the city on a clear path to improving the operation and maintenance of its sewage system; reducing sewage spills; and nearly doubling the number of miles of sewer pipes it repairs and replaces, with a focus on those that have the highest risk of exfiltration.

This mutually agreed solution is going to cost money, which is why the city has proposed a one-time sewer rate increase of 6%, or a little more than $2 per month for the average household. (This is in addition to an already planned 4% increase to replace equipment at the sewage treatment plant, which has nothing to do with our lawsuit.)

Channelkeeper commends and supports the city’s commitment to making this long-deferred and essential investment in upgrading our sewer infrastructure. The environmental, health, and economic costs of not doing so – raw sewage polluting the beaches where we, our children, and tourists swim, surf, and play – are simply too great.

Kira Redmond is the executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper

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