Ten years ago, the City of Santa Barbara experienced 41 sewage spills, resulting in the loss of 12,638 gallons of material flushed from city homes that otherwise would have eventually found its way to the wastewater treatment plant. Popping out of manhole covers, 7,622 gallons flowed into city creeks and eventually into the ocean. Fast-forward to 2019. Only four sewage spills. Of the 705 gallons that busted loose, only 122 made their way into city waterways.
This dramatic transformation was the subject of quiet rejoicing during the COVID-imposed virtual reality of this Tuesday’s City Council meeting. By spending $49 million on sewage pipe repairs and replacement, Santa Barbara’s water treatment team won regional and statewide awards.
There was little rejoicing, however, back in 2011 when this journey began. That’s when Santa Barbara Channelkeeper sued City Hall over its notoriously porous sewage pipes. That lawsuit engendered no shortage of ill will and bruised feelings. Even environmentalists on the council were angry, arguing the lawsuit was unnecessary; City Hall was already moving to fix things; the city’s attorneys’ fees came to $700,000.
Kira Redmond, Channelkeeper’s executive director, said the lawsuit proved necessary to get action. If sewage spills flowed into city creeks, it constitutes a violation of the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency got involved. In 2012, the EPA approved a formalized and binding legal settlement — known in the parlance as a consent decree — between City Hall and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, detailing exactly what remedial steps would be taken and over what time frame. As of March 31, that Consent Decree — which ran eight years — officially expired. For a city that prides itself on being the birthplace of the environmental movement, the lifting of this decree was also an occasion for quiet celebration.
This Tuesday, Amanda Flesse, the city’s wastewater systems manager, was content to let the facts speak for themselves. For those inclined to regard sewage disposal as yet another out-of-sight-out-of-mind municipal necessity, the guided tour she and her assistant, Bradley Rahrer, provided was both eye-opening and fascinating. It turns out the City of Santa Barbara has jurisdiction over 257 miles of sewage lines. Most are six to eight inches in diameter and made of hardened — “vitrified” — clay. The average sewage pipe is 55 years old. If all those old pipes were lined up in a straight line, Rahrer told the councilmembers by remote video, they’d run across the border all the way to Ensenada, Mexico. That doesn’t count the 25,000 privately owned laterals that allow property owners to flush the contents of their commodes into the city’s grid of pipes.
The big challenge keeping these pipes working is age and roots. When droughts strike, as they invariably do, tree roots somehow know where to go to find water. Old clay pipes are not much of a match against thirsty trees. As a result of the consent decree, City Hall repaired or replaced 28 miles of pipe. That included 10 miles of high-risk pipes. According to Redmond of Channelkeeper, that’s twice as much as would have happened without the consent decree.
Flesse outlined a host of other changes initiated to fix the problem. More frequent repairs. High pressure water shot into pipes to scour out any blockage and shred any intrusive vegetation. Acoustic testing of pipes. Closed-circuit TV inspections. All this allows city engineers to prioritize repairs. Prior to the decree, city policy was to replace one percent of the city’s pipes a year. That translates to 2.56 miles. After the decree, it accelerated to 3.56 miles a year. All this, of course, cost money. Wastewater treatment rates increased substantially in that time. Over the years some councilmembers were quick to blame Channelkeeper for those rate hikes. Redmond insisted that many of those increases went to cover costs the city would have had to bear anyway.
Along the way, City Hall adopted more aggressive treatment protocols for the disposal of fats, oils, and greases, known by the acronym FOG, itself the unsung subject of considerable political intrigue and insider baseball. Community outreach has played a role too. Flesse highlighted her department’s recent WTF program — better known as What to Flush. The real issue is what not to flush. High on that list — particularly in the age of COVID — are sanitary wipes. They choke pipes.
The cost of keeping an older system in good repair has proven challenging. Many of the problems originate not with the city’s pipes, but with the privately owned laterals. If those laterals are faulty, the repair costs can be exorbitant. Initially, City Hall offered a rebate program to entice property owners into not deferring maintenance. In short order, the $900,000 cookie jar was quickly depleted. Plumbers, they contended, were gaming the system, charging inflated rates to customers who were paying with government money.
City Hall toyed with the idea of requiring private laterals to pass the smell test if and when the property was sold. The real estate lobby predictably went bonkers, and City Hall backed down. More recently, City Hall has opted to provide a list of screened and reliable vendors who have agreed to charge reasonable rates in exchange for the business that comes with City Hall referrals. While that program has proven successful, the sticker shock involved with sewer later repairs remains a hot-button issue.
Speaking at the council this Tuesday — again by squawk box and not in person — Kira Redmond praised the progress made by City Hall in limiting the number and volume of spills; beaches are cleaner and the water is cleaner. Lawsuits such as hers, she acknowledged, are “are not a popular, inexpensive, or easy way of securing environmental improvements,” but she added, “Unfortunately, it is sometimes the only way to get tangible results that have a real and measurable impact.”
The multi-million-dollar question is “What now?” Program manager Flesse urged the council to maintain support for the effort even without the Consent Decree. Without adequate funding, she said, maintenance, repair, and replacement work could not continue at the same pace and some of the progress achieved over the past 10 years could become undone.