By John Geluardi
Daily Planet Staff
Paul Feinstein was frustrated – frustrated with 18 inches of raw sewage backing up in his basement during heavy rains and frustrated with not getting any results from the city when he complained.
“Every time I called the Department of Public Works my calls were either not returned or I was told there’s no money to fix the problem,” said Feinstein, who lives in northwest Berkeley.
Although he would still like to see the city doing more, Feinstein has decided property owners can pitch in to solve part of the problem. He has convinced Councilmember Linda Maio to ask fellow councilmembers to develop a public awareness campaign around the issue.
One reason for the city’s overburdened sewer system is that there are “illegal” connections between private property storm drains and the city’s sewer system. These connections allow rain water to enter, causing city sewer lines to reach capacity sooner, which increases the likelihood of overflows.
Feinstein said if homeowners understood the ecological and health risks of sewer backups, they would be inspired to make the estimated $1,500-$3,000 repairs.
According to a council report authored by Maio, as of 1955 there were 1,400 multi-unit residential buildings, 800 single-family homes and 400 commercial businesses that had illegal storm-water connections with sewer lines. Those numbers are likely to have increased over the last 45 years, she said.
Feinstein said he’s glad Maio’s agreed to put the item before the council.
“Many people are unaware that there’s sewage backing up in homes that are below grade (street level),” said Feinstein. “All I’m suggesting is that we do something beside throwing up our hands and saying ‘there’s no money.’”
According to city officials, the problem of sewage backup is the most acute in west Berkeley where all of the city’s sewer and storm drains flow.
Alex Schnieder, director of Berkeley’s Environmental Health Division, said there are health concerns with raw sewage but residents can avoid most of them if they carefully clean backup areas with a mild bleach.
Maio’s recommendation, if adopted, would ask the Public Works Commission to research the extent of the problem and then develop an education program instructing owners on how to check drainage systems on their properties.
But Ted Edlin, president of the Council of Neighborhoods Association, said Maio’s recommendation only deals with part of the problem.
Edlin said that in addition to private sewers which flow directly into the city’s storm drain system, there are many lines throughout the city that are simply broken, draining raw sewage into the ground and sometimes residential backyards. But unlike Feinstein, Edlin says the solution should not be left to the property owner.
“This (council) item deals with everything but the city’s responsibility,” he said.
The state has given Berkeley, along with many other cities in the East Bay, 20 years to update sewer systems that are broken or can no longer cope with increased flow, according to Will Bruhns, a senior engineer with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Control Board.
Director of Public Works, Renee Cardinaux said the city has been steadily replacing the sewer system for the last several years but the department is limited by time and money. He said, at the current rate, the city will take 50 years to complete its sewers projects.
“If we had twice the allocation of funds we’d be able to make the kind of progress we’d like to see,” he said.