Sewage spills from broken city pipes into Lake Temescal, emails show

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Raw sewage spilled in Oakland’s popular Lake Temescal within the last year -- not the first time this has occurred, according to a series of emails obtained by the East Bay Express and a follow-up interview with the East Bay Regional Park District.

The lake, which draws up to 200,000 visitors a year to its waters and shores off Broadway near the Rockridge and Temescal districts, has been closed off-and-on for the last four summers. Park district staff have repeatedly told the public that the closures have been because of toxic algae blooms. 

KTVU also filed a public records request this summer seeking relevant information related to Lake Temescal’s serial closures, and received information about toxic algae blooms, a situation many attribute to global warming that affects lakes across the country. Nothing about sewage was mentioned in the material that was released. And while the park district has sent out public notices and put up signs about lake closures and algae, there have been no such specific warnings regarding sewage.

 The park district also says that it is Oakland’s responsibility to document the sewage spills into the lake’s watershed. 

The last known sewage spill was in Lake Temescal in January of this year, according to the East Bay Express. Before that, there were two others in December and February 2017. The park district officials acknowledged in an interview last week with KTVU that these sewage spills happen at least twice a year, mostly because of 160-year-old pipes that break and which are owned by the city of Oakland.

How much sewage exactly is not completely clear. 

But Loren Little, senior supervisor for Oakland's Drainage Division, estimated it’s a lot.

“You have hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage, running into Lake Temescal," he told KTVU. This has been an “ongoing issue for a long time, wastewater dumping into Lake Temescal.” 

The East Bay Express first obtained emails from the February 2017 event regarding the sewage, which KTVU has also reviewed.

“The City of Oakland is attempting to pump liquid sewage from the storm drain to a sewer line in the southern parking lot at lake Temescal. The sewer line is over capacity and has spilled within a manhole the sewer line shares with the storm drain. The city has reported SSOs twice since the SSO was initially thought to have stopped last week with removal of roots that caused a blockage in the sewer line. Unfortunately, they haven’t had success draining the overabundance of sewage. Hopefully, the system will catch up with the overload soon. I’ll keep you posted,” according to an email from park district water management supervisor Hal Maclean to his colleagues. 

In a follow-up email, the park district’s Environmental Services Manager Becky Truden responded that these spills are regular occurrences (about 2x year). 

In an interview with KTVU, the park district’s Chief of Stewardship Matt Graul acknowledged these sewage spills occur “a couple of times” a year. “And there’s nothing we can do to clean it up, except wait for dilutions.” 

The problem is the aging city pipes, which break mostly during the rainy season, Graul said, adding that he has requested the city “elevate” finding a solution to the problem.

The Department of Public Works maintained that Oakland is in compliance with a federal consent decree mandating that the city repair more than 900 miles of sewer lines, as well as upholds federal and state environmental laws.

Little, who last year was transferred out from being senior supervisor of the city’s sewage department after 30 years, responded that the city should be able to do something about it.

“With city sewage fees of over $50 million a year,” Little said, “there is no excuse that Oakland can’t run a sewer division the way it should.”

KTVU's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.