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Delta Watch

Municipal Wastewater and Industrial Discharges

Every day, up to one billion gallons of partially treated sewage is flushed into the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. Municipal wastewater is directly discharged to Delta waterways from over 300 municipal sources including numerous Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs). Many of these municipal discharges are located in the heart of the Delta, where they release effluent directly into the critical habitat of endangered fish species.

As northern California's population continues to expand, these discharges and their impact on the Delta's ecosystem and fisheries will continue to grow. Wastewater discharges affect the quantity, quality, and temperature of water flows. Sacramento, Stockton and other cities in the Delta increasingly use the estuary as a toilet bowl, with each flush comes increased pollution such as ammonia, heavy metals and even pharmaceuticals. Citing the decline of frogs and rise of “frankenfish,” a Bay Area environmental group filed a legal petition recently calling for tighter federal standards on pollutants that disrupt the hormones of humans and wildlife.

In addition, more than 150 commercial operations, such as mining and other industrial facilities are currently permitted to discharge processed wastewater in and upstream of the Delta. These facilities release as much as 5 million gallons of wastewater each day and have a significant impact on delta water quality, the ecosystem and its fisheries. Industrial sites are also a major source of storm-water runoff. Industrial materials such as fuel, oil and debris are carried by storm runoff from these facilities into the Delta water ways.

Thousands of abandoned mines also litter the California landscape. Many of these mines are in the Sierra foothills and discharge harmful chemicals such as mercury, chromium, cyanide and asbestos that can pollute drinking water and harm fish and habitat. Runoff from these mines continues to contaminate Delta watersheds and downstream environments and contributes to unsafe mercury levels in fish.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has said, “It is clear these abandoned mines pose a threat to public health and safety – and they must be cleaned up.” But little progress has been made in doing so.

Finally, a federal judge recently ruled that the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) is illegally polluting and storing hazardous waste in the San Francisco Bay. MARAD is in charge of 70 decaying naval vessels stored in Suisun Bay, which are discharging toxic heavy metals into the waters. An estimated 20 tons of heavy metals including lead, zinc, copper and cadmium have already fallen, blown or washed off the ships, according to the Federal government’s own analysis. Unless cleaned up they could shed an additional 50 tons into Suisun Bay. The settlement ruled that MARAD would begin cleaning the existing ships and remove all of the obsolete ships from the Suisun Bay by September 2017. Recent reports show that MARAD is currently ahead of schedule on the cleanup. 


Ammonia from Sacramento Linked to Delta Decline
Sacramento's regional sewage treatment plant is the largest single source of ammonia in the Delta. It releases up to 181 million gallons of treated wastewater each day directly into the Sacramento River. The ammonia load in the wastewater has more than doubled since 1985 due to rapid urbanization, and is now more than 125,000 gallons per month. Coalition for a Sustainable Delta: Sacramento Wastewater Treatment Plant Page

Violating the Delta
The effects of human development on the Delta ecosystem are numerous. Local stakeholders in the Delta never fail to highlight the impacts of water pumping operations, but their narrow focus on water exports ignores the pollution they are putting into the estuary and its effects on water quality and wildlife. Coalition for a Sustainable Delta: Violating the Delta

Sewage spills draw lawsuit
The Coalition filed a lawsuit against the City of Stockton and San Joaquin County in 2008 for discharging toxic chemicals and other pollutants into the Delta. The legal action, under the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, targets the municipal storm sewer system operated by the City and County, which has discharged pollutants in violation of applicable permits limits resulting in degraded water quality in the Delta and adverse impacts on fish species that reside in the Delta, including delta smelt and salmon. Press Release - Delta Coalition Sues City of Stockton and San Joaquin County Over Illegal Pollution Discharges 

Fishing group says Redding dump polluting creek (July 7, 2010) Record Searchlight
Ghost Fleet contaminating bay...federal government finally takes action (Apr. 2, 2010)
Federal Ghost Fleet Illegally Polluting San Francisco Bay (Jan. 25, 2010) Environmental News Service
Senator Feinstein: Abandoned mines pose threats (Dec. 6, 2009) San Bernardino Sun
Agencies sued over Delta species (June 4, 2009) Stockton Record
Press Release - Federal Agencies Sued for ESA Violations - Agency Actions Harmful to Listed Species (June 3, 2009)
Amended Complaint re: ESA Violations
Port of Stockton Tenants Pollute Impaired San Joaquin River(Jan. 27, 2009) Environmental News Service
Study: Ecological Stoichiometry, Biogeochemical Cycling, Invasive Species, and Aquatic Food Webs: San Francisco Estuary and Comparative Systems
The Great Delta Toilet Bowl
Fresno City Council votes "No" To More Dumping In the Delta Article on KMPH (Jan. 29, 2010)
Commentary: Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is damaged by dumped sewage Article in McClatchy News (Jan. 26, 2010)
Stronger controls urged on chemicals in water Article in San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 12, 2010)


Editorial: Drugs you toss could end up in your water (April 5, 2013) Sacramento Bee
Meds wind up in tap water despite drug disposal regulations (July 1, 2010) California Watch
Pharmaceuticals in the Environment: Something Can Be Done (Feb 3, 2010) LA Daily Journal

Senate Demands Data on Toxic Drugs Released into Delta
State Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, recently issued Public Records Act (PRA) requests to seventeen large municipal water agencies who discharge potentially toxic chemical and pharmaceutical-laden partially treated wastewater in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The toxic discharges and contamination are under increasing scrutiny by scientists for what is believed to be the significant role they play in harming endangered fish species and environmental habitat. PRA request \ Florez press release \ Feds Not Addressing Drugs in Water (Apr. 30, 2008)

No Drugs Down the Drain outreach program
Stockton denies illegal polluting (Oct. 18, 2007) Stockton Record
Pollution pouring into nation's waters far beyond legal limits (Oct. 12, 2007) San Francisco Chronicle