OWN VOICE. ~ InPerspective by Gregg Dieguez —
Even if the recent court ruling is the end of HMB’s baseless lawsuit against SAM and its partners, there’s another problem which could lead to more lawsuits, if HMB doesn’t remedy it quickly. But there is some good news as well. Herein, Surprising Sewer Solutions to resolve our surplus of sewage on the coast….
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I don’t want to distract you with the lawsuit decision at the start, because that’s not the worst, immediate problem. At the bottom of this article I’ll summarize what happened with the lawsuit. But first, let me describe the urgent problem we face, and solutions, which I spoke to at the 1/19/22 Half Moon Bay (HMB) City Council meeting. Let me add that those readers in Pacifica probably face this same situation, right now.
Too Much Wastewater, and what we can do about it:
Fortunately our Sewer Authority Midcoast (SAM) plant has NOT had a 3 million gallon spill, as Pacifica did on Oct. 25th. It was close however; only the addition of Wet Weather Storage (WWS) this past summer allowed the Intertie Pipeline System (IPS) to hold back excess flows and allow HMB’s sewage to flow through the plant without incident. The upgraded storage facility came within 6″ of an overflow. On Dec. 13th, we were not as lucky; the IPS filled to capacity – a peak flow rate of over 15 M gal/day was sent to the SAM plant, 80% of it from HMB. Only by using a portable pump to siphon off excess was SAM able to avoid a potentially catastrophic overflow which could have disabled the entire plant for an extended period. And that problem contributed to a preventable spill in Montara, because that equipment could have instead been used there when a pump failed (MWSD has a contract with SAM for such services) – had that portable pump not been in use for the HMB-related overflows at the plant.
We have now exceeded the theoretical design capacity of the SAM plant. HMB has no WWS of its own and 80% of peak wet weather flows are coming from the city. 3 things need to happen, immediately:
First, all SAM agencies must immediately cease all new sewer connections. We must stop adding to this capacity problem, until it is fixed.
Second, HMB needs to add WWS capacity in its system before the next major storm. This was a recommendation of SAM’s report at the last Board Meeting, and in fact a prior SAM GM had suggested the same, pointing to acquiring underground rights at a local golf driving range.
Thirdly, the extreme variability between dry weather and wet weather flows indicates that HMB has a large I&I (infiltration and inflow) problem. All agencies do, as tree roots invade pipes, pipes age, and manholes let in stormwater. Some people even direct roof downspouts into their sewer laterals to avoid flooding on their property. People aren’t pooping a lot more during the rainy season, it’s the stormwater I&I which causes the large flows in the sewer pipes. And HMB realizes this, and we know they do, because you can see how they raised the manholes over a foot in 2019 near Smith Field (Wavecrest).
Fortunately, some good came out of the deadly San Bruno gas explosion in 2010. Since that fatal disaster, PG&E has been tasked with investigating sewer lines and laterals in many communities. To reduce costs, PG&E had employed a technique called “horizontal trenching” in laying gas lines. Instead of digging a trench (which for sewer lines is estimated at $400 per FOOT in our area), they bored horizontally to install many gas lines. In Montara a few years back, a 2″ gas line was found drilled through a sewer main. When a hydraulic sewer cleaner with cutting edges encounters a gas line, nothing good can happen; the best result is that the cleaner gets stuck. The worst result would be like San Bruno.
It turns out PG&E is now doing an underground camera survey of our local sewers and laterals. They are in process in El Granada, and the videos of what they find are already being made available to GCSD. In addition, PG&E’s remote camera survey of HMB’s sewers should be complete this month. Which means John Doughty should have this information, probably in part already, certainly upon completion. This inspection should have two benefits: 1) it may flag locations where immediate repair of I&I leaks are needed, 2) it will RULE OUT problems in much of the system, allowing the City to conduct a supplemental survey of any unexamined pipes and laterals more quickly and cheaply. A selective repair of HMB’s 35 miles of sewers, and the addition of a few million dollars of wet weather storage, will be much faster and cheaper than upgrading every pipe and manhole in the system at a cost of $2 million per mile.
As I stated last night, I look forward to the City having an agenda item next month to approve the necessary expenditures to prevent a massive failure at our mutual sewer plant, and to rein in its excessive wet weather sewer flows. Because we don’t need another lawsuit over their failure to address this obvious problem. As I learned in business years ago:
You win or lose in the jungle, everyone loses in Court”
The Lawsuit, is it over? What next?
As we posted here a few days back Sewer Lawsuit: Court Denies HMB Summary Judgment “Does Not Find This Interpretation of the JPA to be Reasonable”, the Judge issued a preliminary ruling in favor of SAM/MWSD/GCSD and against Half Moon Bay. His ruling was based mostly on the clear language of the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) and the Clean Water Grant Program regulations which specify that “[t]he term ‘operation and maintenance’ includes replacement” and define “useful life” as the “period during which the treatment works will be operated”, not just until the IPS needs repair or replacement. In Public Works “Once An Asset, Always An Asset”, which has additional implications for how we (don’t) fund growth, but that’s another article. The best analysis of the cases presented by each side is here: Rush To Judgment… SAM Lawsuit Update The judge did mention, in opposition to HMB’s claims, that HMB did receive benefit from the IPS.
“The City does not transport is own wastewater through the IPS because SAM’s treatment plant is located in the City itself and therefore transport is not necessary. If the plant had been located elsewhere, the City would require the IPS to transport waste, but the fact that Montara and Granada were willing to transport their waste instead is a material benefit to the City.”
That’s just one of the benefits, and we cited five (5) in the article mentioned above. However, I suspect the reasons the defendants didn’t bring more evidence to bear on the benefit issue is that it would have cost more money to get expert depositions to substantiate those benefits, and that they knew their case was solid even with only the one obvious benefit that the Court clearly understood. I also wonder if HMB hamstrung the defense by preventing SAM from participating in the case – their staff would have been a logical source of expert testimony about how the IPS benefits the entire system and all members.
In any event, it will probably be early next month before a final ruling is issued. The court just heard oral arguments on the 18th. And then the City may continue its bullying tactics by appealing – I cannot forecast that. Once the lawsuit is complete, I look forward to requesting and receiving information on the costs and numerous closed sessions all member agencies held. The total amount wasted in legal fees and governance time has to be over $1 million, and that needs to be recognized, if not recovered. I certainly hope that the voters of HMB will ‘recognize’ the council members who pushed this expensive and baseless lawsuit, and find better council members this fall. However, whatever the leadership of HMB ends up being, we are all in this together and we need the City of HMB to own up to its responsibilities and fix the problems it is creating in our sewage system, as described at the start of this article and in detail here: HMB Floods Sewer Plant, and more….
What is an SSO? (Sewer System Overflow)
What to Do When You See an SSO Occurring….
- Avoid contact with the wastewater!
- File a complaint about the SSO and notify your local agency to fix it and clean up.
- Take pictures and video (from a safe distance) and report pollution to the RWQCB (add link).
- Sign up for ?XXXX whose? SSO notifications. Stay tuned, so far I can’t find any….
Author’s Note: At this moment I have 3 emails from the RWQCB describing 3 different methods to report SSO’s. I will distill those into a new article and add links here.
Mr. Dieguez is a native San Franciscan, longtime San Mateo County resident, and semi-retired entrepreneur who causes occasional controversy on the Coastside. He is a member of the MCC, but his opinions here are his own, and not those of the Council. In 2003 he co-founded MIT’s Clean Tech Program here in NorCal, which became MIT’s largest alumni speaker program. He lives in Montara. He loves a productive dialog in search of shared understanding.