Will it spill?

Listening to the small group of concerned residents in Woodacre who want to build a sewer plant in the San Geronimo Valley, you’d think that sewer systems never spill. Actually it’s just the opposite. They spill quite frequently. Spills occur as a result of blockages, because of faulty equipment within the system, as a result of disasters such as power outages or earthquakes and even through operator error.

Here’s a snapshot of local sewer spills in the first few months of 2017. On January 22, 2017 there was a 15,000-gallon spill on San Anselmo Avenue in San Anselmo. On January 28, 2017 there was a 1950 gallon spill on Lincoln Avenue in San Rafael. And on March 1, 2017 there was a 638 gallon spill on Valley Road in Fairfax. Spills must be reported to the regional water board and they are posted on the state water board’s website.

According to the survey data, from 2011 to 2013 there were 96 reported Category 1 spills in Marin County. (A category 1 is a spill of any volume that reaches surface water and is considered to be the most serious spill category). Ross Valley Sanitary District continues to have considerably higher numbers and quantities of spills than any other district. In 2011-2013, its total spill volume was 367,880 gallons, over three times more than the next highest spill total, the city of Sausalito which spilled 102,788 gallons. Marin County reported a total volume of 688,548 gallons of wastewater spilled into neighborhoods, streams and the Bay in the same time period.

In 2012 and 2013, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) charged the Novato Sanitary District and the Ross Valley Sewer District with fines amounting to $1,839,100 for excessive sewer spill activity. RWQCB calculates the fine using a combination of factors including the volume of the spill and the impact to a water body. A typical fine ranges from $0.30 to $0.60 per gallon of spilled sewer. Paying fines not only reduces the amount of funds available for remediating infrastructure problems at sewer plants, it can have a serious impact on a sanitary district’s financial health. And ultimately, taxpayers and sanitary district members are the ones paying the fines. In a 2014 report prepared by a Marin County civil grand jury, the grand jury wrote, “For a County that prides itself on high environmental standards, Marin still has considerable room for improvement.”

All of the data presented here is a reminder that even with the best intentions, right here in Marin, sewer spills happen. To say that it won’t happen in the San Geronimo Valley is not true. While it may not happen frequently and it may not happen right away (or maybe it will), odds are that it will happen. And because the sewer plant is going to be located just 100 feet from San Geronimo Creek, the same creek a small group of concerned residents in Woodacre are trying to protect by building a sewer plant in the first place. Sewer pipes will run close to and across Woodacre Creek and other flowing streams. There is a high probability that any spill will result in serious impact to our waterways. When a spill does happen, the spill won’t stop immediately. That’s because the highly automated sewer plant is not going to be staffed 24 hours a day. As a semi rural community, we can expect longer wait times for technicians to arrive and stop a spill. How long? No one knows.