San Francisco Faces Legal Action Over Untreated Sewage Discharges

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Attorney General, on behalf of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, filed a civil complaint against the city for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This lawsuit centers on the discharge of billions of gallons of untreated sewage from San Francisco's combined sewer systems into waterways and recreational areas over the past decade.


The core concern lies in the potential public health risks associated with these alleged untreated sewage discharges. Raw sewage can contain harmful pathogens like E. coli, which can cause serious illness if ingested. Children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to such illnesses.


Beyond the immediate health risks, is a greater underlying problem: San Francisco's ageing combined sewer systems. These systems, designed to collect both sewage and stormwater in the same pipes, are allegedly failing during heavy rain events. This leads to overflows that release untreated sewage directly into waterways, bypassing crucial disinfection treatment processes. The lawsuit suggests that San Francisco has not made significant upgrades or improvements to its combined sewer systems in over 25 years. This lack of investment in infrastructure maintenance has resulted in a system that is no longer sufficient to meet the demands placed upon it and comply with CWA regulations.


The EPA and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board are seeking a court order to compel San Francisco to take several key actions. First, they aim to ensure that the city ceases further violations of the CWA. Second, they seek a commitment from San Francisco to take all necessary steps to guarantee future compliance with the CWA. Finally, the lawsuit calls for upgrades to the city's combined sewer systems to reduce overflows and prevent the release of untreated sewage.


This legal action has significant implications not just for San Francisco, but for all municipalities across the country that rely on combined sewer systems. You can find the full complaint here. 

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Shaina Shay is an accomplished water professional with over a decade of experience in water policy, management, conservation, and community outreach. Her passion for pragmatic information sharing drives her work across the U.S. and Australia, where she has held roles with investor-owned utilities and as a senior water market specialist. Shaina's commitment to the field is reflected in her leadership positions within the American Water Works Association (AWWA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Southern Arizona Water Users Association (SAWUA).