A kayaker paddling along the Berkeley Marina noticed something concerning recently, and rather gross. Raw sewage appeared to be dripping into the San Francisco Bay from under Skates on the Bay restaurant.
The kayaker reported the sighting on the pollution hotline of San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental nonprofit, which passed the information to the city of Berkeley.
Winter storms test East Bay’s progress in stopping sewage from entering the bay
In response to a lawsuit, Berkeley, Oakland, EBMUD and others agreed to rehab wastewater systems so less sewage lands in the bay. Tested by heavy rains and pipe-clogging pandemic wipes, leaks continue but work is on track.
The city confirmed the leak as raw sewage on April 13, and by the end of the day the restaurant, which sits on pillars in the bay, and is known for panoramic views, had the problem fixed, said Matthai Chakko, the city’s spokesperson.
It’s not clear how long the pipe was leaking.
“City’s Environmental Health staff was able to confirm a slow, steady flow at/around 2 pm on Thursday, 4/13/23,” Chakko said. The restaurant closed early, and called a plumber, he said.
A cap at the end of a pipe had fallen off.
“The flow was completely stopped by 9 pm, and the plumber returned the following morning to access the plumbing at low tide and complete the repair by boat,” Chakko said. “The missing end cap was replaced with a new cap, and the restaurant was cleared to reopen.”
Chakko added: “As a side note, the plumber surveyed the rest of the underside of the restaurant to see whether there were any other issues with the sewer lines in preparation for a proposed major remodel.”
Berkeleyside reached out to Skates’ corporate owners, Landry’s, and hasn’t yet heard back. A supervisory employee at Skates, who said he couldn’t be quoted by name, said the restaurant had no idea the sewage pipe was broken until being contacted by the city, and that the fix happened right away.
Nicole Sasaki, an attorney with Baykeeper, said the organization’s hotline, accessed by email or phone, worked just how it’s meant to.
“Skates on the Bay quickly fixed its faulty sewer line, so raw sewage from the restaurant is no longer discharging directly into the Bay,” she said.
In working order, the sewage pipe under the restaurant directs flows to the city’s sewage system, which then connects to East Bay Municipal Water District’s (EBMUD) large “interceptor” pipes, and on to the treatment plant near the Oakland terminal of the Bay Bridge.
Chakko said he believes sewage leaks into bay waters from the city’s few businesses located in or on the shoreline are rare. Eileen White, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates state and federal water pollution laws, echoed this for the Bay Area.
“I don’t think it’s common for businesses on the Bay to have sewage problems, but all SSOs [sanitary system overflows] that enter storm drains go to the Bay [through gutters, streets, and soils]. SSOs are quite common, and we’re taking actions to reduce them.”
Berkeley reported the leak to the regional water board, an optional step. The incident was handled as it should be, White said, from a leak report to the city to an inspection to a fix. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” she said.
White said the impact from the Skates’ leak should be minimal.
“Because the volume from the leakage is such a small percentage of the volume of the Bay and there is great mixing in the Bay, we do not anticipate that there were any impacts,” she said. “The Bay recovers rapidly due to rapid mixing due to winds and tides.”
It’s impossible to know the condition of sewage infrastructure on private property, because, with a few exceptions, inspection is voluntary. Property owners can have old leaking sewage pipes, called private sewage laterals, from their building to the municipal system, usually under streets, without being aware.
The main exception is a requirement for private sewage laterals to be inspected and repaired if needed before the sale of a property. This requirement, effective in 2011, applies to municipalities served by EBMUD’s wastewater system, including Berkeley.
Another exception is the city of Richmond, which requires private property sewage line inspections. Sasaki, of Baykeeper, thinks the Richmond approach should be the norm.
“Cities should require businesses and homeowners to determine whether the sewer pipes on their properties are working correctly—which the City of Richmond is already doing—and likewise find ways to provide incentives for folks to do the right thing,” Sasaki said.
“Without this requirement, there is no way to tell how many more businesses and homes are also unknowingly polluting our environment.”