The city of Monterey faces a possible lawsuit under the Clean Water Act as its aging sewer system has backed up numerous times in past years, leaking raw sewage above ground. Sonoma-based California River Watch also contends cracks in the system cause sewage to leak constantly underground; the organization in August issued a notice of violation and intent to sue.
“Monterey has been here for a long time, and has had a sewer system for a long time,” says Dino Pick, deputy city manager for plans and public works, acknowledging the city’s aging infrastructure. The notice from California River Watch claims 76 percent of the city’s sewer system was constructed before 1960, and 71 percent before 1940.
Yet, Pick says Monterey has been proactive in addressing its sanitation system in recent years after decades of deferred maintenance. In 2014, the city received a $16.8 million loan from the state to overhaul the system. With the state funding, the city has already video-scoped all sewer lines and made spot repairs where damage was found. During the process, all sewer lines were graded on a scale from A to F. (Eleven percent were graded D or F.)
Over the past year, all seven lift stations that move wastewater in the city have been rehabilitated with the installation of new electrical panels, valves and pumps.
In 2016, Monterey will replace more than 400 manholes and more than 27,000 feet of sewer lines, about 5 percent of the city’s 102 miles of sewer pipe, addressing most but not all of lines graded either D and F, Pick says.
Since August 2010, there have been 37 instances of sanitary sewer overflows, where the system has backed up and spilled raw sewage above ground. In the notice by California River Watch, lawyers contend each instance of above ground discharge is in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act. They give an example of a Nov. 18, 2014, incident where root intrusion caused an estimated 6,000 gallons of sewage to flow into a storm drain.
Many of the remedial measures demanded by California River Watch to avoid litigation are already being implemented by the city. One sticking point could be the expensive demand that the city replace all sewer lines within 200 feet of surface waters.
On Nov. 19, California River Watch lawyers and Monterey’s outside counsel met in an attempt to resolve the issues. David Weinsoff, an attorney representing the environmental nonprofit says the deliberation was “respectful and cordial” and that he will meet again with the city’s counsel in December before making a decision on whether or not to move forward with litigation.
California River Watch frequently sues cities and municipalities for their aging infrastructure under the Clean Water Act. This year alone, the group has filed eight lawsuits, five against public bodies. In the past five years, the group has filed more than 40 suits, nearly all under the auspices of the CWA. California River Watch has also issued eight other notices of violation that have yet to be resolved.
When asked if nearby cities had the resources to upgrade infrastructure to stop sewage spills, Weinsoff says, “They have no choice. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to ensure that water is not polluted, so there’s an obligation to properly dispose of this waste.”