SAN FRANCISCO - Last weekend, 890,000 gallons of raw sewage and stormwater spilled into San Francisco Bay from an overloaded World War II-era treatment plant. Five days earlier, a ruptured pipe released 400,000 gallons of filth into the bay.
And those were just the big spills the public heard about.
On average, human waste spills into the San Francisco Bay more than five times a day, fouling the waters and shorelines of this environmental jewel and recreational treasure.
Decrepit pipes, outdated municipal sewage treatment systems and poor upkeep have been blamed for many of the spills into one the world's most famous and beautiful natural harbors. And some of the Bay Area's wealthiest communities have been identified as some of the most persistent polluters.
"It's like living in a situation sort of like a Third World country, where there's poor sanitary management," said Sejal Choksi of the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper.
Some spills have been blamed not only for killing large numbers of fish but for causing respiratory infections, skin and eye irritation and diarrhea in swimmers. Signs warning against water contact are a common sight at beaches and marinas for those who swim, fish or sailboard in the bay, especially after storms.
Rick Avery, 47, of the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club in San Francisco, said two of his bay swimming companions decided to stay out of the water after the 400,000-gallon spill last week. Avery said he once he became sick from swimming after a storm, when sewage systems often are overloaded. He had a stuffy nose and other cold symptoms.
"The water was so dirty that day, and we still swam," Avery said. "That was the only time that I got sick and handful of other people got sick."
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In 2008 alone, more than 2,000 spills dumped an estimated 15 million gallons of raw or partially treated human waste into the waters of the bay, state officials said.
On Sunday and Monday, the east San Francisco Bay city of Richmond's more than half-century-old sewage system was overloaded by rain and spewed 890,000 gallons of filth mixed with rainwater. Officials said the system's deteriorating, leaky clay pipes cannot handle the extra load after a storm.
On Feb. 17, a 23-year-old pipe ruptured along the shoreline of Sausalito in well-to-do Marin County and sent a 400,000-gallon plume of waste into the bay, forcing health warnings on nearby beaches for more than a week and the closing of a fishing pier. Officials blamed shoddy workmanship and corrosion.
"A number of California jurisdictions have let their infrastructure age beyond the breaking point," said William L. Rukeyser, a state water board spokesman.
In January 2008, a 2.5-million-gallon sewage spill in Marin County led to fines by the state and federal government and beach closings north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Regulators accused the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin of holding on to almost $550,000 that could have been used for maintenance for preventing such spills.
And last month, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the East Bay Municipal Utility District - which provides sewer service to about 10 cities, including hardscrabble Oakland, wealthy Walnut Creek, the environmentally conscious college town of Berkeley, and middle-class Hayward - to spend $2 million a year to fix leaky pipes that were allowing sewage to flow into the bay.
The EPA this week released $283 million in economic stimulus money earmarked for sewage system upgrades in California. But that is only a fraction of the needed repairs. San Jose alone has a sewage treatment plant that is more than 50 years old, and a $1 billion, 10-year plan to fix it.
"The sewer lines in the ground are indeed old. In San Francisco, it's over 100 years old," said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. "There's a lot of effort that goes into maintenance, but one can only put enough Band-Aids on something for a time. At some point you've got to do a full remodel."