A Story of Sewers

Last week’s “City Hall and Channelkeeper Reach Sewage Settlement” missed the mark on a number of counts and begs correction. While it’s true that city sewer lines spilled seven times in 2018, releasing 855 gallons of untreated sewage to waterways, when these figures are put in context, they tell a different story.

From 2008-2010, Santa Barbara had an average of 39 spills per year, with a high of 41 spills in 2009 releasing nearly 7,000 gallons to waterways, which prompted Channelkeeper to file suit against the City. While even one spill is a violation of the Clean Water Act and is one too many in Channelkeeper’s book, when compared to the city’s past performance as well as to how other sewage systems perform, seven spills in a single year in a 257-mile sewer system like Santa Barbara’s represents good performance and a lower spill rate than the California average as reported by the State Water Board.

On another point, the article says incorrectly states that Channelkeeper’s settlement with the city requires the city to clean, repair, or replace one of its 257 miles of pipe per year. Our settlement in fact currently requires the city to repair or replace more than 3.5 miles per year, and in the first five years of our settlement (2012-2016), required them to annually repair or replace one additional mile of pipes which we identified as having a high risk of leaking to storm drains or creeks. Our settlement further requires the City to clean far more miles than that in order to prevent spills.

Finally, the article says rates have been increased several times and are projected to be increased again by 5 percent next year to comply with our settlement. Yes, rates have been increased, but for the most part these increases have had nothing to do with our settlement but are due primarily to the city’s need to replace equipment at the treatment plant, as well as to the rising cost of labor, supplies, and other construction costs.

Thanks to Channelkeeper’s lawsuit, since 2012 the city has made sorely needed investments in improving its spill response and reporting protocols, enhancing sewer pipe inspection and cleaning efforts, and repairing or replacing 38 miles of sewer pipe (equivalent to 15 percent of its entire 257 miles of sewer mains), including 10 miles of pipes that were identified as having a high risk of leaking to storm drains, creeks, and the ocean. As a result, sewage spills fell from a high of 41 in 2009 to seven in 2018, or by 83 percent. Channelkeeper applauds the city for these improvements, which translate directly into less pollution to our creeks and beaches. 

Kira Redmond is executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

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