Grand jury finds lack of accurate documentation of sewage spills at Oakland's Lake Temescal

The Alameda County civil grand jury released its annual report on Tuesday, with jurors finding fault with the amount of raw sewage flowing into a popular lake, how the city and park district handle communicating the spills to the public and the lack of accurate paperwork used to document the toxic problem.

Oakland's Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell, who had heard of the report but did not read it during a previously scheduled sewage meeting before members of city council, had no response. He has 90 days in which to do so. Public Works maintains the pipes that break and flow into Lake Temescal, which is on East Bay Regional Park District property. In general though, Mitchell and his team have made two presentations at City Hall indicating that all is well within the sewer department and the city is complying with all laws and procedures.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan attended the meeting where Public Works officials were tasked with answering questions about sewage spills and accuracy of reporting those spills. She told KTVU: "I’m very concerned about this and I don’t think the administration adequately answered the questions. They keep trying to say everything is fine. But both the water quality control board and now the grand jury have said it is not fine. The tone of the administration is ignoring the magnitude of the problem."

In April, 2 Investigates reported that Oakland had 730 percent more sewage spills in last fiscal year than the previous one, totaling roughly 250,000 gallons of sewage that spilled throughout the Bay Area's fourth largest city.

In the last five years, 2 Investigates found that at least 60,000 of sewage has spilled into the lake, which up until 2014, had been used heavily during the summer months by families, camps and locals of all ages. Since then, the lake has been mostly closed during the summer because of what the park district has described as toxic algae blooms. But as the grand jury pointed out, sewage spewing into the lake from 100-year-old clay pipes has not been adequately communicated to the public and is also likely part of the regular lake closures. 

Interactive map: Oakland's biggest sewage spills 

But the number of sewage gallons that 2 Investigates found through public documents might also be off.

The numbers in the grand jury report were higher. The report noted hat on two occasions in 2017, "overflow estimates by field inspectors of more than 50,000 gallons were reduced below the 50,000-gallon threshold in the final report at the sole discretion of a crew supervisor who was not on site during the overflow." 

As a result, the report noted, "Public Works reported there were no sanitary sewer overflows exceeding 50,000 gallons during 2017’s rainy season, so that additional state reports and testing were not required."

The grand jury "finds this somewhat surprising given the record rainfall, the age of the sewer system, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine exactly when sewage overflows begin, making underestimates more likely. The lack of mathematical precision in the process leads to significant differences of opinion between onsite and supervisory personnel as to the volume of a given overflow. "

This, in turn, makes it possible for "important sewer system failures to be underreported to the State Water Quality Board,"  the grand jury found. It also makes it impossible for Public Works "to make consistently sound decisions regarding what remedial priority to assign to a given overflow," the report states. 

In addition, the grand jury took issue with the supervision over the private contractors who sample water, do lab analysis and occasional emergency work on the city's pipes.

"Monitoring the work of these private contractors is not done thoroughly," jurors found. "Contractors are simply not responsible for any reporting functions ... Therefore, when work is done by a private contractor, it is not well-documented. Without good records for reviewing what has been done, future problems may be hard to troubleshoot." 

In conclusion, the grand jury wrote that its panel believes the situation can one day be properly managed if the park district and the city figure out a better communication system, alert the public via cell phone or robocall about sewage spills and employ an independent manager to ensure accuracy, while also protecting the environment from large sewage overflows.

On that topic, Mitchell, of the Public Works Department, did tell the council on Tuesday that it has hired a consultant to spend the next six months determining "best practices" to address at least some, if not all, of these issues. The cost of the consultant was not brought up at the meeting. The work should be done by December.