The City of Santa Barbara Wastewater System staff say there are fewer spills and a better response system in place compared with a few years ago, but the environmental group that sued over the issue isn’t convinced.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper alleged Clean Water Act violations from sewage spills and eventually reached a settlement agreement in which the city will repair or replace an additional two miles of pipe each year.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper pointed to the 171 spills since 2006, with above-average rates in 2008 and 2009, but city officials said they had been working on — and mostly solved — the problem by the time the organization sued in 2011.

The city has 257 miles of wastewater collection system pipes, and the predominant cause of sewage spills is roots getting into the pipes, Water Resources manager Rebecca Bjork told the City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

She said it’s worse with dry weather, since roots go into pipes looking for water.

From 2008 to 2010, the city averaged about 40 spills per year. They were small and usually contained quickly, but “not representative of a good operation,” she said. There were 12 spills last year and 19 so far in 2012, including a 6,600-gallon spill Dec. 2 that closed Leadbetter Beach for four days.

Even with the uptick, “it’s a lot better than we were two years ago,” Bjork said, adding that the city is working on a new management system for its wastewater collection.

“It takes time for an organization to change,” Wastewater System manager Christopher Toth said. “We’re confident that in the coming year we’ll do better.”

In 2013, the city plans to address some of the oldest pipes and put up closed-circuit cameras for 25 miles of pipe, which will set up for a big rehabilitation project in the following year. Toth said he believes the city can address most of the high-risk pipes within three to four years.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper Executive Director Kira Redmond said the city’s improvements are “far from adequate.”

She said the consent decree from the settlement requires the city to replace two miles of pipe and spend a certain amount on repairs, not just overall improvements. This year, Santa Barbara repaired 0.64 miles of pipe and spent $223,000 on high-risk pipe repair, with other funds going to surveys and consultants, according to Redmond.

Lowering sewer spills was also part of the agreement, which she considers violated by the total of 19 so far this year.

Redmond said the city has been wasting money on outside attorneys instead of repairing pipes, and her organization wants to move forward instead of spending time on “combative posturing.”

City Attorney Steve Wiley said the city is not violating the agreement, though Santa Barbara Channelkeeper interprets the situation differently. Attorneys on both sides have been trying to work it out, he said.

“We’re pretty convinced that we’re in full compliance with the consent decree,” Wiley said.

“I want to get to the bottom of this,” Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said. “It’s definitely my business to figure out what’s going on here. … It’s disappointing to be at this point where we’re having this conflict and we’re not in agreement when I think brilliant people are trying to make this all work.”

Council members took some offense to Redmond’s tone at Tuesday’s meeting, and said city staff were doing their best to fix the system and reduce spills with the funding available.

“To characterize staff as inattentive or having an attitude about it is erroneous, it doesn’t help,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “I think some of the tone brought up by Ms. Redmond is a little unfortunate.”

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss agreed. In the future, he advised Redmond, a little appreciation of the work done thus far could go a long way. 

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.