A couple of years ago, small plumbing problem at Andrea Pook’s house ended up exposing broken and misaligned clay pipe in her home’s private sewer lateral – the pipes connecting the plumbing in her house to the city’s sewer mains. “Without us realizing, there was sewage that was going into the hillside instead of going into the main,” said Pook.  “That’s just bad for everybody.”

Ironically, at the time this happened, Pook, who is a Public Information Representative for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) was hard at work on a brochure for EBMUD customers explaining the importance of inspecting and repairing or replacing sewer laterals.  EBMUD is under court order to improve the quality of the water it discharges into the San Francisco Bay.  When private sewer laterals are cracked, not only do they let sewage out, they also let rainwater in.  During winter storms, EBMUD’s West Oakland treatment plant is overwhelmed by an influx of water at rates up to six times the normal volume.  The facility can’t process the effluent fast enough and some of it gets released into the bay with minimal treatment.

Which is a shame because, on a normal day, what the plant does with sewage is pretty amazing.

Water managers no longer talk about sewage or wastewater.  According to Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting Administrator for the Office of Water, the favored term is “resource water.”  Stoner recently visited EBMUD’s plant as part of a national tour to highlight innovative practices in water management.

When sewage – excuse me, resource water – reaches the treatment tanks that you might see (or smell) as you head south on 580 after crossing the Bay Bridge, bacteria go to work on the effluent, essentially composting it.  A process that would take weeks in nature is accomplished in 12 hours as water is pumped through a variety of treatment tanks.

Solids waste, once separated from water that is treated and released into the San Francisco Bay, is fed into digesters and turned into methane gas.  Incoming sewage produces enough natural gas to supply 40% of the energy needed to power the 50-acre plant.  To meet the rest of the facility’s energy needs, EBMUD trucks in organic waste from farms in the Central Valley and restaurants in San Francisco. In 2012, the utility installed additional turbines with the capacity to produce up to 11 megawatts of power, which moved the plant from net zero energy consumption to being a power provider.

Storm water runoff disrupts the balance of this delicate operation.  High volumes of water can wash out the bacteria vital to processing waste.  A big winter storm can overwhelm storage pools that hold excess water, forcing release of partially treated waste into the bay.

Andrea Pook is glad her pipes will no longer be contributing to this problem. “I wish we would have caught it sooner,” she said.  “You realize that stuff is going on under your nose, literally, and you didn’t even know it.”

If you find this all fascinating and want to know more, you are in luck. The plant will be open for a rare public tour on June 15 at 10:00 am.  For more information or to reserve a spot, contact Allison Garrett, (510) 287-1445.

About The Author

Laura McCamy, is a freelance writer, editor and researcher, and a contributing production editor at Oakland Local. Her work also appears in Momentum Magazine and the Intuit Small Business Blog. Follow Laura on twitter @lmcwords

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