Oceans & Water

Water is life. Water resources should be used reasonably, beneficially, and sustainably. Aquatic ecosystems are precious and increasingly threatened.

Our water campaigns and lawsuits ensure that clean water rules are enforced for the benefit of humans and wildlife alike.

We are fighting to stop water pollution at the source. Sewage pollution is a blight that continues to impact cities, waterways, and coastal areas. Stormwater “non-point source” pollution, which results from chemicals and other pollutants running off the landscape into waterways during and after rain storms, causes significant harm to rivers and streams and the larger water bodies that they drain into. 

Industrial “point source” pollution loaded with heavy metals and other carcinogens and discharged directly into our rivers, streams, and coastal waters infuses our waters with a toxic slurry of pollution that can persist, accumulate, and magnify in the food web for decades or longer.

Our Children’s Earth Foundation will remain vigilant in protecting our limited and embattled water resources and the life they sustain.

See below for summaries of OCE’s key water-related cases, particularly to protect public health and vulnerable aquatic species. THREATENED SPECIES PROGRAM has also regularly benefitted water quality and aquatic ecosystems. A full list of OCE’s cases can be found here.



All over the country, cities have antiquated wastewater systems that are in dire need of repair and upgrades. During and after rain storms, raw and partially-treated sewage overflows and is dumped into nearby waters. Sewage treatment isn’t the easiest topic to engage with, and local politicians often fail to prioritize water infrastructure spending to the detriment of long-term public health and ecosystem health.

OCE has developed expertise in cleaning up sewage pollution over the course of 15 years of working on this issue, and we have recently expanded our “Sick of Sewage” campaign from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast. (Read more about our Florida “Sick of Sewage” campaign here.)

Sewage pollution is not only extremely disgusting; it is extremely dangerous. Raw and partially-treated sewage devastates ecosystems and wildlife, and can carry deadly bacteria that often persist in waters long after a spill occurs. Children and seniors are always particularly vulnerable to infection, but even healthy adults are at risk for serious health consequences from sewage-borne illness and infections.

In all our efforts related to sewage pollution, our goal is to take the issue out of the political arena and ensure that cities agree to a schedule of system upgrades that can be enforced by a court. There are rarely (if ever) effective short-term solutions to major infrastructure problems like sewage system failures. Our long-term approach to sewage pollution has succeeded again and again, and ensures systemic changes that truly address the many interrelated causes of sewage pollution, from sewer lateral maintenance and replacement, inflow and infiltration problems, to capital improvement programs. While each city’s wastewater infrastructure is unique, old and under-maintained sewage systems tend to share these kinds of problems, with predictable results when the systems become overwhelmed during severe wet weather events.

Between 2004 and 2014, OCE litigated against several cities that were polluting the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean waters and beaches. We partnered with other environmental groups in all cases, and resolved the lawsuits after negotiating improvements to wastewater treatment and storage, as well as a specific schedule for necessary upgrades and compliance with the Clean Water Act.

In 2010, after years of litigation, we reached a settlement in our lawsuit against the City and County of Honolulu, which has old and problematic treatment plants in its system. Our settlement ensures that the infrastructure will be fixed and upgraded in the years ahead. We recognize that there are no “quick fixes” to large scale infrastructure failures that are decades in the making, but it is so important to have court oversight in place to make sure that cities won’t de-fund or de-prioritize sewage system work in the future. Read more about our work in Hawaii here.

In some cases, we also fight for penalties to help deter cities from discharging sewage pollution into waterways and waterbodies, for example, a $1.6 million penalty against the City of Honolulu for serious and ongoing violations of federal law. We also push for maximum monitoring, transparency and citizen input at every stage, adequate staffing of wastewater departments, backup strategies to minimize the risk of force main spills, and the creation of grant funds for community-led projects.



The San Francisco Bay is beloved by Bay Area communities and admired by visitors. People use it for recreation, to commuting, and the Bay provides habitat to vast array of species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. The Bay is the largest estuary on the West Coast.

Unfortunately, not all industries or other entities around the San Francisco Bay voluntarily do their part to keep the waters clean and the wildlife healthy. In 2012, OCE brought a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Pabco Gypsum Port in order to clean up the runoff that was going into storm drains and the Redwood Creek Channel, directly adjacent to the San Francisco Bay. We fought to make sure Pabco would comply with all applicable pollution prevention requirements and use best management practices to reduce pollution.

The eventual consent decree resolving this lawsuit also requires Pabco to conduct additional sampling of water to demonstrate it is meeting pollution standards, and implement a “Supplemental Environmental Project” or contribute money for another entity to implement a project that benefits local water quality. By negotiating injunctive relief and specific measures and practices in a consent decree, we can ensure compliance, or impose penalties for non-compliance.

Along with several other environmental groups including the national Waterkeeper Alliance, OCE helped to develop an agreement with the U.S. EPA regarding a “general permit” for industrial stormwater pollution. This permit applies to thousands of businesses and several industrial sectors, from cement mixing to scrap metal salvage to food processing, and sets certain pollution limits and imposes certain “best management practices” that companies must follow before discharging polluted water.

The new agreement will make it easier to determine whether industrial operations are protecting local waters or not, while also clarifying the requirements and expectations for businesses. Furthermore, the agreement includes a commitment by EPA to evaluate setting numeric standards and practices for stormwater retention at industrial sites, and propose restrictions on the use of coal tar sealants, which are carcinogenic.



Despite Florida’s long-established water based tourism industry, which has traditionally emphasized activities like boating, fishing, and other forms of recreation, Florida waters are among the most polluted in the nation. Industrial facilities, agricultural businesses, and even local governments have regularly failed to comply with clean water laws, taking Florida’s water and wildlife for granted.

Now, Florida residents are fighting for water quality and ecosystem protection through citizen outreach campaigns, legislative advocacy, and lawsuits.

OCE has had a presence in Florida for a long time, but we have drastically increased our clean water work throughout the state in recent years. As of 2018, we have more members in Florida than any other state.

In 2016, we took action to address Tampa Bay’s long-term sewage pollution issue. (Read more about our Florida “Sick of Sewage” campaign here.) We have also partnered with local groups including Citizens for Clean Water and members of the Waterkeeper Alliance to help raise awareness and empower communities that are directly impacted by water pollution.

Florida water and wildlife are vitally important for so many reasons including public health and happiness, economic development and tourism, and as a special place that our children and grandchildren deserve to experience during the decades and centuries to come.

Florida’s ecosystems are resilient to a point, but during recent years they have been embattled, and certain pollution impacts can take years to remediate. This death by a thousand cuts is devastating, but we can take action now and continuously, to ensure that Florida’s beaches, waters, and wildlife will remain beautiful and bountiful.