Santa Barbara, Channelkeeper sewer infrastructure agreement extended

Root intrusion is a growing problem

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The City of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper have reached an extended agreement, for a second time, over the number of allowed sewage spills, annually.

"Sometimes it bubbles out of manhole," said Kira Redmond, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper's executive director. "Sometimes there's lot of sewage and it gets to the beach and forces a beach closure. Those are more rare. But really, obiviously it matters how much sewage spills but any sewage spill is a violation of the Clean Water Act and an indication that there are problems with the way the sewer system is being managed."

Both sides admit: aging infrastructure (vitrified clay pipes) and root growth are the two leading problems for the roughly 260 miles of underground sewer pipes that snake beneath the city.

"We're hopeful that we'll get this finally under control," said Rebecca Bjork, Public Works Director for the City of Santa Barbara.

The agreement stems from years of city sewage spills that have violated the federal Clean Water Act and first came to the attention of Channelkeeper roughly a decade ago, prompting the filing of a lawsuit in 2011, and invevitably, the first agreement in 2012. At that time, Santa Barbara was to have no more than 18 sewage spills within its system; Channelkeeper logged 20.

Each year, the number of allowed spills was to decrease based on monitoring, maintenance and pipe replacement by city crews.

2014 saw one of the worst offending years: the city was limited to 12 sewage spills but experienced 23. Redmond said each sewage spill is a violation of the Clean Water Act and brings the potential for an imposed fine of $37,500 a day.

In 2015, Channelkeeper went back to the city for noncompliance. Negotiations through attorneys led to the three year extension.

"Now the city can really, hopefully, focus how best to allocate its resources to focus on those pipes that are most likely to spill," Redmond said.

Redmond said as of Tuesday, March 7, the environmental non-profit had documented three sewage spills this year from the city's aging or damaged pipes. The total spill allotment for 2017 is eight.

Bjork said city crews are focusing on roots and pipes, televising sewer lines and any time they spot roots growing into or cracking pipes, they're put on a priority list.

"We were having over 40 spills a year," Said Bjork. "Last year, seven made it to the ocean but we want to keep it all in the pipes."

When it comes to homes, Bjork said sinks, showers and tubs that are slow to drain could be impacted by roots.

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