Anne Sasaki of San Francisco has been swimming in the bay waters for nearly 30 years, but last week afforded her rare new first. After swallowing some water, she became sick and threw up.
"The bay has got cleaner and cleaner over the years and decades," Sasaki tellsThe Bay Area News Group, "but maybe I should be more concerned about what’s in the water after the storms.”
You may have noticed, as I did this weekend, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, just how brown and murky the bay waters have become after heavy storms. Last week, the Coast Guard went so far as to issue a debris warning. In situations like these, East Bay Regional Park District representative Hal MacLean tells the News Group, "The common advice we give people is to avoid swimming in the three days after a big storm.”
But readers of a reportfrom the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board might find themselves inclined to wait a bit longer. The Board counted 120 sewage overflows in three stormy January weeks, 85 of which sent waste into the bay or surrounding waterways. The culprits were many: Richmond spilled 9 million gallons of partially treated effluent into a marsh that leads into the bay. Vallejo's sewer system let out 2 million gallons into the body of water, and San Mateo spilled 260,000 gallons into it.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, meanwhile, spilled 5 million gallons of untreated sewage, which that district blames on power and equipment failures, rainwater getting into leaky pipes and overwhelming its sewage system, and so forth. Regardless, now that's all washing around in the bay waters, although the District emphasizes that it's allocated $5.6 million in the next year to reduce sewage overflows, an amount it plans to spend each year going forward, according to a district spokesperson.
"Some of the Region’s wastewater treatment plants also experienced wet weather problems," the report goes on: Those include the West County Wastewater District which spilled about 9 million gallons of what's known as un-disinfected primary-treated wastewater into Wildcat Marsh. That occurred, according to a Regional Water Quality Board, "because influent flows exceeded the storage capacity of its equalization basins.
The list of incidences goes on: "The Valero Refinery’s wastewater treatment plant flooded due to high flows in Sulphur Springs Creek, which abuts the plant," the Board rep explains. "The plant’s proximity to San Francisco Bay and a coinciding king tide exacerbated the problem."
But with the bad — chemicals, bacteria, pesticides, debris from streets — comes the good. The brown in the Bay Waters is largely a plume of sediment, the raw material necessary to rebuild wetlands and maintain their health. That sediment, though, is mixed up with pollutants — toxic mercury from old mines, Lester McKee, a scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute tells News Group.
“The sediment is a good thing," says McKee, and yet also, "the sediment is a bad thing." Bottom line: "We need the sediment. Unfortunately, the Bay is very good at retaining these legacy pollutants. It’s like a bath tub.” Sure, or for some brave wetsuit-wearers like Anne Sasaki, it's more of a swimming pool.