A contaminated storm drain that has been one of the most notorious sources of Santa Monica Bay pollution for more than a decade will be diverted away from a once-popular Santa Monica beach to a sewage treatment plant, under a proposal awaiting approval by the Los Angeles City Council.
Environmentalists and public officials last week heralded the proposed rerouting of the storm drain at the foot of Pico Boulevard as a solution to more than a decade of complaints about the stinky, murky runoff that often pools on the beach south of Santa Monica Pier.
The proposal calls for the storm water--which at times has carried raw sewage, gas and oil--to be diverted into a sewer line that flows to the Hyperion Treatment Plant near El Segundo. Treated waste water from Hyperion is discharged five miles offshore.
A Los Angeles City Council committee approved diversion of the storm water Wednesday, with the full council expected to approve the project by early next year.
Elation over the pending removal of the contamination from one of Southern California's busiest beaches has been tempered, however, by the fact that government officials already spent five years and $635,000 on a previous solution at the Pico drain. That project would be rendered obsolete after just a few months of operation.
Even the current proposal is considered a temporary solution, while planning continues for construction of a treatment plant at the end of the drain in Santa Monica. Officials hope a Santa Monica facility will one day clean the 100,000 to 250,000 gallons of storm water daily that flow down the Pico drain.
But environmentalists and others prefer to focus on the current proposal for removing the polluted water from the beach. They predicted that the project would allow Santa Monica officials to reopen the beach, which has been closed since sewage was discovered in the drain in the summer of 1990.
"A popular local beach is going to be safe for everyone to swim at again. That's a big deal," said Mark Gold, staff scientist for Heal the Bay. The environmental group last May gave the beach near the storm drain an "F" grade for water quality. "All of a sudden, with the flip of a switch, it will become an 'A' beach," Gold said.
Gene Siegrist, president of a group of local surfer-activists called the Free Pacific Assn., has been surfing near the Pico drain for nearly 30 years. "We are very happy with the (proposed) diversion," Siegrist said. "This will be a relief for everyone in town, seeing as how this is the worst storm drain emptying into the bay."
Concern about the Pico drain emerged in 1980, when a magazine reported that five lifeguards who had worked near Santa Monica Pier contracted cancer. Although county officials discounted the story--saying a survey found that lifeguards had no higher incidence of cancer than the general public--it has become a part of local lore.
Fears about runoff peaked again in 1986, when the beach was fouled several times by petroleum products illegally dumped into the Pico drain.
By then, local officials had formed a task force to study the drain. They soon agreed to put the contaminants farther out to sea, and away from swimmers, by extending the drain with an underwater pipeline.
But bureaucratic delays held up construction until late last year. And when the pipeline was completed early this year, two storms soon tore it loose from the ocean bottom.
Surfers and others ridiculed the pipeline, which could be seen undulating atop the ocean. One compared it to a child's toy--"like a giant Water Weenie."
In August the pipeline was anchored again to the ocean bottom and declared ready for use.
But the $635,000 pipeline--more than double initial cost estimates--may be in operation as little as seven months. Officials now hope that by March the contaminated storm water can be diverted into the sewer system.
"The pipe all of a sudden becomes obsolete," said Stan Scholl, Santa Monica's director of general services. "So maybe we spent a few hundred thousand dollars for no reason.
"We could have saved that money and saved about three or four years of time."
Jim Noyes, deputy director of public works for the county, also expressed regrets about the pipeline project. "I certainly would like to have (the county's) share of that back to do something else with that money," Noyes said.
But Scholl and Noyes defended the earlier decision to go ahead with the pipeline, saying its short use could not have been foreseen. They also said it was the only solution that the county, Santa Monica and Los Angeles officials could all agree on.
Los Angeles city officials previously had balked at sending storm water to the Hyperion Treatment Plant, saying it did not have the capacity to handle more water. They were also concerned that toxics in the Pico drain would contaminate a sewer plant byproduct that is used as fertilizer.