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The Muck Stops Where? : Some Coastal Cities Are Considering Diverting Runoff to Sewage Plants to Reduce Pollution in the Pacific

September 05, 1999|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The search for the source of bacteria that closed much of the surf off Huntington Beach is prompting some officials to demand greater focus on hidden problems that threaten Orange County's coast and its ocean water quality.

Population growth and development have put stresses on sewer and water systems and multiplied problems with urban runoff, overwhelming coastal cities and agencies that bear the burden of keeping ocean water clean.

"It's time we start thinking of a long-term solution," Huntington Beach City Administrator Ray Silver said.

The stakes are large: The coast is a powerful economic engine and attracts more than 35 million visitors a year.

Keeping ocean water clean is everyone's responsibility, environmentalists argue. Most coastal cities agree, and some--such as Laguna Beach--are pursuing projects to divert runoff from storm drains to treatment facilities.

Urban runoff is the untreated waste water that flows from lawns and streets into storm drains, carrying toxic chemicals and bacteria into the sea.

Many inland cities, however, argue that storm drain diversions are too costly and in most cases not necessary. And sanitation engineers warn that runoff and sewage pipelines should never be combined.

In Huntington Beach, runoff is the suspected cause of abnormally high bacteria levels in the ocean off Huntington State Beach and Huntington City Beach that resulted in the biggest beach closure since a 1990 oil tanker spill. The beaches were reopened last week.

The incident has cost merchants in Surf City thousands of dollars in lost business and disappointed swimmers and surfers.

Silver hopes to persuade the City Council and residents of the need to divert storm drain water carrying runoff to treatment facilities and upgrade the city's aging infrastructure.

The cost to repair the city's sewers is estimated at $1.3 billion over the next 20 years. That includes improvements to streets and sidewalks.

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For years, environmental groups have urged cities and counties to treat urban runoff as sewage and run it through treatment facilities before it is pushed miles out to sea in outfall pipes.

Cities such as Santa Monica and Los Angeles already have begun diverting storm drains on a small scale. In Orange County, Laguna Beach now handles 38% of its runoff during the dry season by diverting its drains and hopes to have all city drains diverted by 2007.

"Our diversion at Bluebird Canyon has already saved us twice this summer from beach closures due to sewage spills," said Steve May, a Laguna Beach spokesman.

Though the step has been successful, May said he did meet with resistance from engineers who did not favor combining sewage and runoff in the same pipe. A backup or leak in a combined system could send raw sewage into the streets, they fear.

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Much of the urban runoff that ends up in the ocean off Huntington Beach rolls in from the Santa Ana River. The river drains a vast 3,200-square-mile area populated by 4.4 million residents in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The river's start is marked by lush green forest and fresh water from three Southern California mountain ranges. But as it snakes along a 75-mile journey to the ocean off Huntington Beach, it flows through more than a dozen cities that discharge runoff from hundreds of storm drains.

What flushes into the Pacific Ocean is an urban stew with disease-carrying microbes mixed in with trash: motor oil, antifreeze, pesticides, kitchen appliances, old tires and the grass and animal waste that get washed off lawns.

Diverting that runoff into treatment plants is not the only solution. Half of the river's flow is directed into 500 acres of wetlands behind Prado Dam in Riverside County, which were developed with the help of scientists from UC Berkeley to act as a natural filter, said Ron Wildermuth, an Orange County Water District spokesman.

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The county also is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore wetlands and other projects in these targeted areas:

* Aliso Creek, where a $15-million effort is planned to stabilize banks and the creek bottom and restore habitats. If Congress approves the allocation, the corps could secure funding by next year.

* Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park near Laguna Niguel, where the county plans wetlands restoration.

* San Juan Creek, which spills out at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. During El Nino storms, portions of the beach were closed for more than three months, and the effort to stabilize the creek is running a year behind the Aliso Creek effort, said Michael Wellborn, a county planner.

* Upper Newport Bay, where a $175,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board will enable Newport Beach to pay for laboratory testing to determine whether coliform bacteria is from dogs, birds or humans.

"If we find out it's birds, it gives us more ammunition limiting bird and duck feeding," said David Kiff, an assistant to the city manager. "If it's animal waste, we do an educational program about pets. If human, we start videotaping our sewers looking for cracks."

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Times correspondent Judy Silber contributed to this story.

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