All too often, beaches along the Santa Barbara Channel are posted with warnings that the water contains excessive levels of bacteria that can make swimmers, surfers and other ocean users sick. One of the sources of these high bacteria levels is sewage spills and leaking sewer pipes.

Sewage contains high levels of pathogens, toxic pollutants, nutrients, oil and grease, and can pollute surface water and groundwater, threaten public health, adversely affect aquatic life, and impair the recreational use and aesthetic enjoyment of our waterways. Sewage spills – which are illegal – can also damage property and result in beach closures, harming tourism and our local economy.

In attempts to identify the biggest contributors of sewage pollution to our creeks and beaches, Channelkeeper tracks the sewage spill rates of municipalities in our region. We were alarmed to find that the City of Santa Barbara in particular had an exceedingly high number of sewage spills, and that number continued to climb to the point where it had 41 spills in 2009, the highest rate of any similarly sized municipality from Santa Cruz to Thousand Oaks and three times worse than the state-wide average.

Like many other cities, Santa Barbara’s sewer pipes are old and deteriorating and in need of rehabilitation and replacement. Unfortunately, the City failed to keep pace with this need, which caused the dangerously high number of sewage spills aboveground, as well as a chronic problem of “exfiltration” – leakage of sewage out of broken sewer pipes and into storm drains that lead to creeks and beaches.

For more than a decade, Channelkeeper sought to convince City leaders, through education, communication and advocacy, to address the serious problems plaguing its sewage system. The City responded by putting a few band-aids on the problem, but failed to commit to the comprehensive solution needed to systematically fix the City’s old and leaking sewer pipes and stop the spills.

Therefore, after careful deliberation, in February 2011 Channelkeeper filed a lawsuit against the City for numerous violations of the Clean Water Act related to sewage spills and exfiltration. Our goal was to compel the City to increase its effort and investment in repairing and replacing leaky sewer pipes in order to stop the illegal flow of sewage to Santa Barbara’s creeks and beaches.

After nearly a year of negotiations, Channelkeeper and the City signed a legally binding settlement agreement in March 2012 which requires the City to spend an additional $4.5 million over the ensuing five years to improve its sewer system operation and maintenance practices, significantly reduce sewage spills, and nearly double the number of miles of sewer pipes it repairs and replaces, with a focus on those that have the highest risk of exfiltrating and contaminating downstream creeks and beaches.

This agreement will protect public health, the environment and Santa Barbara’s tourism and recreation dependent economy by putting an end to chronic leaks and spills that pollute our water.