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June 25, 2013 > Where does it all go?

Where does it all go?

Beneath our feet, and out of sight and mind, is a 783 mile network of sewers that services 60.2 square miles and safely disposes of waste every hour of every day of every year. Performing this difficult and largely hidden task, the Union Sanitary District (USD), a public agency, is critical to the wellbeing of over 300,000 Tri-City residents and those who visit for work or play. Coping with a large, growing population and myriad of waste products, USD faces a monumental environmental and health challenge. Similar to other utilities, its claim to success lies in the relative obscurity of complex operations that perform at a high level without much thought by users.

USD General Manager and District Engineer Richard Currie, P.E. explains, "The basic expectation most people have is that they can flush their toilets, run the washing machine, use the sink and not have to worry about it. As long as they don't have to think about it, we are doing our job." Currie adds that the USD mission is to "protect the public health and environment." Over 130 employees work to maintain seven pump stations, a massive treatment facility and pipeline network to carry an average of 24 million gallons of wastewater every day. The 33-acre treatment plant in the Alvarado district of Union City makes sure that harmful chemicals and pollutants are safely removed so discharge to the Bay is environmentally acceptable.

Sanitary districts emerged in the 1800s, as communities across the United States recognized that many health problems were associated with improper or little control of sewage. Now, many waterborne diseases, such as cholera, still prevalent in some other parts of the world, are almost unknown in the United States. But, when disaster strikes populated areas, even in highly advanced cities, disease caused by contamination of food and water sources, and removal of waste becomes a major concern.

Union Sanitary District was founded May 27, 1918 and built the Alvarado Treatment Plant. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, USD consolidated with other sanitation facilities in Decoto, Irvington and Newark. Maintaining separate treatment facilities and pumping wastewater to the shallow, southern part of the Bay was found to be inefficient so a Joint Powers Authority, East Bay Dischargers Authority (EBDA) formed in 1974 to send treated wastewater to a deep portion of San Francisco Bay. Treatment facilities scattered throughout the Tri-Cities were closed to become pumping stations, directing wastewater to the Union City Treatment Plant.

As collection and treatment of wastewater has become more sophisticated, sanitary districts have been asked to cope with a widening array - residential, commercial and industrial - of sources. Currie says that for customers of USD, refuse may go into different pipes, "but they all go to the same place in Union City." He notes that industrial operations are required to pre-treat and remove certain contaminants from their waste (i.e. metals, oil, grease, etc.) before it enters the system. Pre-treatment requirements around the Bay Area vary since the effect of any discharge into San Francisco Bay is affected by tidal flows. For example, San Jose, at the southern end of the Bay, faces higher standards since there is less tidal action to help disperse the release of treated wastewater. In contrast says Currie, "USD effluent is discharged a few miles offshore of Oakland Airport where there is a great deal of tidal influence." He adds, "Our effluent is actually cleaner than most water in the Bay."

As a result of efforts to control the quality of industrial discharge, a "core business function" of USD is to act as a regulator. Some industry standards are set by federal regulations while others are subject to "local limits," imposed by the sanitary district. In order to operate, USD experts collect and analyze samples in order to meet or exceed Environmental Protection Agency and Regional Water Board requirements. Safeguards are built into the system to eliminate severe and widespread pollution. These begin with the permit process for industrial users including scrutiny of potentially toxic pollutants. Even though an inadvertent excess release of pollutants may occur, these are diluted by the large volume of effluent treated on a daily basis. When this occurs, USD responds to make sure this doesn't become a continuing problem with long term impacts.

Once sewage reaches the Union City facility, large settling ponds allow solid matter to separate from liquids followed by bacterial and chemical treatment to destroy contaminants. Highly conscious of environment impact, USD has been a proponent of "green" practices, not only through community promotion, but in practice too, including recycling biosolids, a solar generating project using rotating solar panels to generate power for its Irvington Pump Station and a solar panel carport to generate power for administration buildings. Byproducts of the treatment program also generate power for the facility as well.

Once treated, USD water has three destinations: recycle on site to clean processing equipment, water plants, etc. (1 million gallons per day), Hayward Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary (3 million gallons per day) and the remainder to the Bay through pipelines shared with other agencies.

Within the industry, USD is widely recognized as a leader in the industry with awards including National Association of Clean Water Agencies Gold Award, 2010 Wastewater Treatment Plant Of The Year, 2011 Top 1125 Global Training Organizations Award and five Collection System Of The Year awards since 1987.

Tri-City fifth grade students, with the help of classroom visits by USD personnel, learn how they can help ensure a clean environment. For others who wish to personally see how USD protects us and learn the dos and don'ts of waste disposal (i.e. FOG - Fat, Oil and Grease do not belong in the drain and neither do pharmaceuticals!), the staff and Board of Directors of USD invite the public to visit. "People really do want to have options [to maintain a healthy environment]," says USD Communications Coordinator Michelle Powell. Tours can be arranged by calling (510) 477-7500 or visiting

USD employees work around the clock to keep the current environment clean and safe and anticipating future challenges such as new and unique pollutants as well as previously known but growing problems such as ammonia levels. Their efforts, along with citizens serving on the USD Board of Directors - Pat Kite, Anjali Lathi, Manny Fernandez, Jennifer Toy and Tom Handley USD - are critical to protect the health of the Tri-City community.

Although they receive little acknowledgement from the general public, a friendly wave and "Thank You" for their efforts would not be misplaced.

Union Sanitary District
5072 Benson Rd., Union City
(510) 477-7500

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