In a long-awaited effort to fight beach pollution, Santa Monica and Los Angeles have agreed to build an underground pipe that will channel contaminated rainwater out to sea from one of the area's most notorious storm drains.
Construction of the 1,200-foot pipe at the mouth of the so-called Pico-Kenter storm drain is only one part of a larger experiment by Santa Monica to clean up an increasingly polluted beach and bay.
If successful, Santa Monica hopes to become a model for West Coast cities searching for ways to treat storm drain runoff--bacteria-laden water regarded as one of the main ingredients in ocean pollution.
The Santa Monica City Council, following a unanimous vote Tuesday night, will enter an agreement with the city and county of Los Angeles to share the $580,000 cost of building a pipe to carry runoff water from the Pico-Kenter drain 600 feet into the Santa Monica Bay.
The pipe will also be equipped with a state-of-the-art alarm system that detects illegally dumped petroleum, diesel oil and other hydrocarbons, which must be pumped out of the water before it hits the sea.
Laying of the pipe 10 feet under the sand is to start this fall, General Services Director Stan Scholl said.
Pico-Kenter, which empties onto the beach at the western end of Pico Boulevard, has long been considered one of the worst sources of pollution among the 64 drains that dump into the bay.
Foul water from the drain frequently collects in stagnant pools on the beach, posing health risks for swimmers and occasionally forcing officials to close the beach.
County testing has shown that runoff is contaminated with high levels of coliform bacteria from animal excrement, soil, lawn fertilizer and decaying worms and insects.
"Runoff is a big contributor (to ocean pollution) and the hardest one to deal with because of the nature of the material that flows," Councilwoman Christine Reed told her fellow council members in voicing support for the pipe plan.
"You have here the potential of making a significant improvement."
The pipe extension will carry water far into the ocean where it dissipates quickly and cannot collect near humans, officials said. According to city studies, the runoff is sufficiently diluted so that it will not hurt marine life.
But city officials--along with several environmentalists--recognize that the pipe extension tackles only part of the problem.
The real solution, they suggest, must come from treating the runoff water before it reaches the bay.
Using Ozone Gas
With that goal in mind, Santa Monica is experimenting with the use of ozone gas to purify storm drain water. City engineers have set up a testing station along the Pico-Kenter drain near the Santa Monica bus maintenance yard on Olympic Boulevard, where small amounts of water are being infused with the ozone gas.
Officials claim Santa Monica is at the vanguard of runoff-water treatment.
"What to do with storm drain water is a question that hasn't been adequately addressed anywhere in the country," City Manager John Jalili said.
"Historically, people didn't pay attention to water flowing into the ocean. Environmentally, there is quite a bit of interest to see if this will work."
Scholl predicted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which he said has praised Santa Monica's experiment, will make storm drain runoff treatment mandatory within three years.
At the same time, officials concede that they are able to treat only a tiny portion of the water that flows through one of the bay's largest storm drains. And the cost of expanding the treatment may be prohibitive.
But representatives of Heal the Bay, one of the principal environmental groups concerned with pollution in Santa Monica Bay, said treatment of the water is the only solution.
Constructing a pipe that takes water into the ocean is merely putting the problem "out of sight, out of mind," said Heal the Bay President Dorothy Green.
"It's better than nothing but it's not the solution," she said. "Dilution is not the solution. You really have to treat that water. A lot of money is going to be spent on the pipe when we would rather see work on a permanent solution."
Councilman David Finkel also lamented that the city's plan does nothing to combat the even more serious pollution from sewage spills.
"This deals with limited issues. We don't even pretend to suggest that this has anything to do with . . . undesirable matter pouring into the bay . . . because of our overburdened sewer system," Finkel told the council.
"The health of the bay is not resolved by this program."
The agreement that Santa Monica is entering with Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles is the product of nearly three years of work by a task force that also included environmentalists and representatives of the state Fish and Game Department, Regional Water Quality Board, Los Angeles City Council and the office of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).