Winter Months are no Holiday from Sewage Spills in the Bay

Dec 1, 2008
Sejal Choksi
by Sejal Choksi

As fall turns to winter, many of us look forward to the holiday season and to celebrations with friends and family. Unfortunately, we at San Francisco Baykeeper have come to expect that the winter months also bring something less pleasant: sewage spills in San Francisco Bay. One cause of sewage spills to the Bay is the rain we get in the winter; during heavy rains, water seeps into leaky sewers and is piped to sewage treatment plants, overwhelming their capacity and sometimes causing sewage overflows. But another cause of winter sewage spills might surprise you, and it’s happening right in your kitchen: holiday cooking and cleaning.

Most families around the holidays gather together for special meals in celebration of the season. While we look forward to enjoying rich foods like turkey, potatoes and homemade gravy, many of us might not recognize that the fat and oil that come along with holiday meal preparation can lead to sewage spills. When fats, oils and grease from pots, pans and fryers get washed down the drain, they stick to the inside of sewer lines and build up over time. Even small amounts of grease and oily scraps down the drain can lead to sewage backing up in your home, backyard or neighborhood – and as we all know, backups are not a festive addition to any holiday get-together. When backups occur in the street, untreated sewage can flow to storm drains and straight into local creeks and San Francisco Bay, harming the marine ecosystem and the birds, fish, seals and sea lions that depend on healthy water.

Baykeeper has been working to reduce sewage spills to the Bay for over a decade. Some solutions to the Bay’s sewage problems will require complex legal and policy remedies, such as investing in long-term improvements to sewage infrastructure in the Bay Area. Fortunately, though, you can easily help stop sewage backups caused by fats, oil and grease. Baykeeper and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) have developed some recommendations to help individuals reduce the burden on our sewage treatment systems:

  • Pour cooled fats, oils and grease into a can with a lid, or mix it with an absorbent material such as cat litter, and dispose of in the garbage.
  • Wipe down greasy pots, pans and dishes with a paper towel. Dispose of the paper towel in your kitchen scrap recycling or in the garbage.
  • Don’t use hot water, soap or the garbage disposal to wash grease down the drain. Water cools through the pipes, causing the grease to harden into clogs further along in the sewer system.
  • Drop off large amounts of cooking oil – like used oil from a turkey fryer – to be recycled at your city’s residential cooking oil drop-off locations.

In addition to making changes in your household, you can help put an end to sewage spills by supporting investment in your city’s sewage infrastructure. Many of California’s sanitary sewer systems were built in the early part of the 20th century and are in poor condition with broken pipes. The Bay Area’s winter rains flood these crumbling sewer systems, leading to spills in our streets, creeks and beaches. For example, last winter, more than three million gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage were discharged into Richardson Bay from a public treatment plant run by the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin. Baykeeper has advocated for new laws to protect our watershed from these yearly floods of sewage. We’re also targeting the worst sewage polluters around the Bay and making sure local cities aren’t breaking our clean water laws.

You can help protect the Bay by supporting Baykeeper’s Sick of Sewage campaign. For more information, visit us at

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