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Bacterial Contamination in Sunnyvale’s Waterways Leads to Lawsuit

San Francisco Baykeeper, an organization that’s been monitoring pollution in the Bay for 30 years, has filed a lawsuit against the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View for water samples showing bacterial contamination 50 times higher than legal limits.

Over the last couple of years, during both rainy and dry seasons, the organization’s scientists have taken samples in the two cities from storm drain outfalls, showing high levels of E. Coli and Enterococcus bacteria. The tests along with past research and investigations have pointed to old clay sewer pipes as the culprit. Baykeeper alleges that the aging pipes have cracked and caused raw sewage to leak into metal stormwater pipe systems and out into the South Bay waters. Some of the sewage pipes are over 60 years old.

In December Baykeeper sent letters to both the City of Sunnyvale and the City of Mountain View about the violations and the intention to sue under the federal Clean Water Act. The lawsuits were subsequently filed at the beginning of February.

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“Municipal stormwater is a significant source of bacteria to urban creeks,” stated the letter addressed to Sunnyvale’s Environmental Services Department. “Bacteria concentrations recorded from Sunnyvale’s waterways indicate they are unsafe for human contact following minor storm events and even during dry weather. High bacteria concentrations can be directly attributed to discharges from urban stormwater systems. Stormwater outfalls are proven to be a significant pathway for bacterial loading.”

According to Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of Baykeeper, the organization had done many similar investigations in several South Bay cities including San Jose between 2005 and 2015, showing similar contamination. She said that those issues have been resolved and the cities in violation are now on track, adhering the protections in the Clean Water Act.

“Storm water is the biggest source of pollution in our waterways,” Choksi-Chugh said.

The organization does not currently have plans for further tests in Sunnyvale or Mountain View and is waiting for those cities to take the lead in rectifying the issues.

“The City of Sunnyvale takes water quality protection very seriously and is in full compliance with our state-issued stormwater and sanitary sewer permits,” stated Jennifer Garnett, City of Sunnyvale’s Communications Director in response to the suit. “We’re reviewing Baykeeper’s complaint and have met and will continue to meet with them to discuss their concerns.”

Following an initial meeting with both Sunnyvale and Mountain View City officials, Choksi-Chugh anticipates more technical meetings to be held with experts looking into the water system infrastructure.

“The response we’ve gotten so far has been very collaborative, which is exactly what we’re looking for. We don’t want to spend a lot of time in court,” she said.

Although Baykeeper’s testing was only for bacterial contamination, they suspect that the stormwater runoff may contain other forms of pollution such as petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals, microplastics, mold spores, pharmaceuticals and carcinogenic toxins.

In addition to potentially causing harm to residents who enjoy the Bay Trail and nearby parks, there’s also concern about the pollution’s impact on sensitive fish habitats in the South Bay. Choksi-Chugh said that Baykeeper’s team of experts will advise the cities to fix sewer pipes and install green infrastructure that can prevent pollution from entering the storm drains. The upgrades would also improve drought resiliency by capturing more rainwater flow.

“Mountain View and Sunnyvale clearly want to do the right thing for the Bay and their residents,” said Choksi-Chugh. “We’re collaborating with them now on a plan for stopping the flow of pollution to creeks and the Bay.”

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The Mlnarik Law Group, Inc.

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