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Sea Level Rise Threatens Oakland’s Sewer System

By Barbara Grady, New America Media

OAKLAND, CALIF. — The shoreline along Oakland is a checkerboard quilt of cement, steel and wetlands, with grassy estuaries sandwiched between walls of cement where old terminal buildings rise from the shore, steel pipes send effluent to the Bay and massive containership berths receive their payload. 

Just inland from this quilt lies a broad north-south strip of railroad and highway. 

Only after all that, nearly a mile from the shore, lie residential neighborhoods, block after block of shoebox size houses in an area known locally as the flatlands. 

Raw sewage warning sign, Oakland, Calif.
Credit: Daniel Ramirez/flickr

Their distance from the shoreline leads many residents here into thinking of sea level rise as a remote issue not likely to affect them, based on random interviews when a question about flooding caused people to laugh or raise an eyebrow and point to the scorching sun in drought-worried California. 

But it is precisely these flatland neighborhoods that are likely to be flooded – and not only with water but also with a toxic stew of industrial runoff and sewage — when the Bay’s sea level rises or a global warming -induced storm occurs, say ecologists and area planners who have looked at the problem. 

Because the flatlands are the lowest part of the city, they receive the overflow in a storm drainage system that relies on gravity and a sewer system that planners expect will be overwhelmed by sustained high water levels or by a storm surge of three or four feet above high tide. Water, and whatever industrial runoff or sewage is mixed with it, would backflow out of storm sewers onto streets, yards and basements.

“Some of the first flooding likely to occur will be in the low lying areas in Oakland, where the poor people happen to live,” said Lindy Lowe, lead senior planner of the Adapting to Rising Tides project of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Sea level rise is no longer an “if” occurrence but a “when.” Scientists predict a one foot rise in waters off the U.S. West coast by the year 2050 and — more urgently — a 27 percent chance of a climate induced storm surge, Sandy style, anytime. That is because the oceans are getting warmer and higher as glacial ice shelves in Antarctica melt. This May, scientists realized a major glacier in West Antarctica had detached and begun an irreversible melt.

According to a new analysis of sea level rise impacts by Climate Central based on federal data, melting is on track to produce a sea level rise of 1 to 8 inches by the year 2030 — that’s 14 years from now — and up to 19 inches by 2050. Climate Central also states “Rising seas dramatically increase the odds of damaging floods from storm surges,” doubling the odds of a “century” or worse flood occurring in the next 18 years. Century floods are defined as “floods so high they would historically be expected just once per century” and surge four feet above high tide.

Along Oakland’s coast, 19 inches would wash over runways at Oakland International Airport, railway lines and roads that lead to the Port of Oakland and some of the treatment facilities at the vast wastewater treatment plant in West Oakland.

What the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the East Bay Municipal Utility District and others forecast is that storm surges would flood this infrastructure and the water would then gravitate to the storm drain system, only to be pushed back because the storm drains are already full. The water in the saturated earth would seep into sewer systems, overwhelming them.

“Nobody from the hills to the flatlands will be able to flush their toilets,” if a storm surge or rising tides were to top four feet, said Jeremy Lowe, sea level rise program manager at ESA and author of a tidal wetland design guidelines for San Francisco Bay and an ecosystem-based climate change adaptation plan.

And the messy spillover will settle in the flatlands.

“Most of the effects on communities will be the flooding of infrastructure,” said BCDC’s Wendy Goodfriend, a senior planner on the Adapting to Rising Tides project, with no where for the water to drain. “Drainage is a problem in East Oakland and West Oakland. These neighborhoods rely on sump pumps,” she said to deal with saturated yards and homes during rainy seasons.

“East Oakland has one big pump system, so to keep people’s yards, and basements and streets dry it is pumping water out,” all the time. “There will be a time when that is not possible,” because the water will just be too plentiful.

Oakland, Calif.
Credit: Stanislav Sedov/flickr

Indeed it’s already happened, that’s why officials know it could happen again.

In the El Nino storms of the mid-1990s, parts of East Oakland and West Oakland had streets flooded for days on end.

Barbara Williams who has lived in East Oakland at 14th Avenue and 23rd Street since she was a little girl, remembers it. “The storm drains couldn’t handle all the water” flowing onto 14th Avenue from the sloping streets. “They had sandbags up there,” she said, pointing to the streets to the south. But as to whether it could happen again and with much higher waters.

“I haven’t thought about that,” she said. “Where would our shelter be?”

Over in West Oakland, Amber McZeal has thought about it. “I’m pretty familiar with storm surges. I moved here from New Orleans after Katrina,” she said. The prospect of significant flooding from storm drain backflow, “Yea, it’s very real. It’s like a plunger going backward.” After the levees broke, water gushed into her 7th Ward neighborhood and overwhelmed sewer and drainage systems backflowed into the streets and into first floors of buildings. Her apartment building, with 8 inches of water on the ground floor, was rendered unlivable. She had to leave the city.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District's Wastewater service area.
Credit: East Bay Municipal Utility District

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which operates the vast wastewater treatment facility in West Oakland that receives sewage from nine East Bay cities, has made preparing for sea level rise and storm surges a priority, said Abby Figueroa, its communications officer. It has been actively upgrading its pumps, and sewer interceptor pipes and putting in protections and valves at the treatment pools to keep out floodwaters. A lot is at stake: on an average day it treats 63 million gallons of wastewater for some 650,000 customers.

“We think there is going to be a lot more water coming into the plant through inflow and infiltration,” based on modeling and assessments of what could happen during sustained higher sea levels, said Abby Figueroa of EBMUD. “So we are working on reducing the inflow and infiltration. Reducing the amount of water that comes into our pipes that is not from our customers but from the street runoff.” It is working with BCDC in vulnerability assessments.

It has installed monitors and valves within the system so that it can control against inundation where its large pipes collect wastewater from municipal sewer lines and at the plant itself so it can shut off inflow of a magnitude that would harm the plant. These are precautions.

But EBMUD does not own all the pipes that bring water and debris into its wastewater treatment system — or not even the majority of them. Cities own the sewer lines that travel under streets and individual property owners own the sewer laterals that connect buildings with sewer lines. What EBMUD owns is the bid interceptor pipes that collect wastewater from sewer lines.

“It is a regional problem. We are the last stop for this water that gets into the system but we don’t own everything connected to it,” Figueroa said. Moreover the sewer system is separate from the storm drainage system, even though the two co-mingle when rain is heavy and runoff is high.

“We have to work with municipalities with their systems. If their systems are stronger they won’t introduce extra storm water,” Figueroa said.

“The collection systems are quite deteriorated here in the city, we end up taking in a lot of storm water,” Figueroa said.

The age of sewer laterals and sewer lines and infiltration from storm water system is a big enough problem that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is officially monitoring pipeline upgrades in the area. The EPA and the California Regional Water Quality control Board are requiring six cities, EBMUD and one sewer district to fix old, racked sanitary sewer pipes to protect against the infiltration of rainwater — which when heavy can overwhelm waste water treatment facilities lead to untreated or partly treated sewage being released into the Bay.

In the worst case scenario — such as in a 100-year-storm surge, defined as a four feet above high tide — the partly treated sewage water wouldn’t even make it to the Bay but instead back up. The East Bay Private Sewer Lateral Ordinance covers Oakland, Piedmont, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Kensington and Richmond Annex. Then, Alameda, Albany and Berkeley also have sewer lateral replacement requirements under a similar ordinance.

In Oakland, the city Public Works Department has been working to upgrade its sewer lines, which cover 931 miles under Oakland streets, and secured funding through Measure B to systematically replace lines.

Flooding on 81st Ave, Oakland, Calif.
Credit: Neil Girling/flickr

“It’s definitely a place where everyone: the City, agency people, commercial developers and individual property owners need to become educated,” said Kristine Shaff of City of Oakland Public Works Department.

“Public Works is trying to make people aware of water, drainage, pipes, electric wires,” she said. “Infrastructure is something you don’t think about until it doesn’t work.” she said “People expect to be able to turn the water on, flush the toilet, drive on streets - that have street lights.”

Voters approved a broad public works measure, known collectively as Measure B, that authorizes the City to upgrade and maintain roads, bridges, sewers.

This June, the City is issuing a $40 million bond to fund the sewer work and retire older bonds that funded the sewer work. This financing has allowed the city to construct 42 miles of new relief sewers and replaced or repaired about 290 miles of sewer pipes. This year, it will nearly double its spending on sewer replacement to $16 million compared to $9 million a year the past five years.

The flatlands neighborhoods of Oakland are where the majority of the city’s residents live, certainly the majority of its working class and low-income residents. The poverty level is above 20 percent and unemployment in the flatlands hovers in the 15 to 18 percent range, according to census data. The flatlands are home, also, to gun violence and joblessness, mediocre schools and prostitution. They’re home to a lot of despair and worry.

When environmental and community activists try to get people galvanized over the risks that global warming-induced sea level rise could bring, they don’t find much interest among residents – nor among elected officials.

“It’s a hard sell because people’s immediate priorities are unemployment, crime — immediate crises,” said Catalina Garzon, community strategies program director at the Pacific Institute. Also, “People have been hearing about the drought, and they say so now you’re talking to me about flooding?’”

But it is people like Williams, who has no car, and depends on her walk along 14th Avenue to get her groceries, who will be left vulnerable. Yet as the heavy metal bars on nearly every door and first floor window in her neighborhood tell, crime is the issue here, not weather.

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“There is excellent reason why our poorest communities are not engaged. The truth is if you are struggling to put food on the table. Or worried about the crack house next store, it is a luxury to worry about the possibility of an earthquake or sea levels rising in 30 years from now,” said Ana Marie Jones of Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, a non-profit agency trying to help Bay Area communities prepare for rising sea levels, earthquakes and other disasters.

“And if 97 percent of the community is checking out, you will not have political leadership taking this up,” Jones said.

For Janice and Leander Sellars in West Oakland, the prospect of floods seem real – it has happened here before in their neighborhood of Chester Street and 4th Avenue, but it pales to them in comparison to other neighborhood problems in West Oakland.

“It wasn’t that bad, we’d just kick it around,” Janice says of the ankle-deep water that covered her street for days. “Hell, I’ve seen worse.”

But it wasn’t actually just water they were kicking around. A former chemical plant in the area left so much lead and other toxins in the soil that the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a soil remediation for the whole area. After the flood, city workers came in and covered lawns with tarpaper gravel and new dirt to avoid exposure to lead.

It is the fear of toxins and disease being introduced into groundwater and soil from flooding that has Fruitvale resident Carolyn Norr worried. She has a two-year-old son and is about to deliver another child.

“Having a child made me really think of our responsibility around this,” she said. Sea level rise – and the disruptions to life as we know it that it will bring “is something we know is going to happen but we are sort of putting this thing off to our kids to deal with,” she said.

But by allowing our human created fossil fuel emissions to interrupt the climate, change the sea level and induce storms “is huge – it’s a huge experiment and we don’t know all that is going to happen.”

“This disrupts the balance that has been sustaining us for millennia. It could bring different water-borne diseases, different types of mosquitoes,” Norr said. “I don’t know if I can say which will impact my child the most, air pollution or sea level rise, but in general we are messing with the stability of the world and it is not good.”

Barbara Grady is a reporter and editor for Oakland Local.

This story is part of a New America Media-led collaborative reporting project ("Surging Seas Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon?") on the local impacts of sea level rise involving six Bay Area ethnic and community media reporters. The project was conducted in partnership with Climate Central, Stamen Design and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Mize Family Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

Reprinted with permission by New America Media.