Poorly maintained and aging sewer systems in Orange County have clogged, crumbled or broken down at least 198 times so far this year, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of raw sewage.
Much of this bacteria-laden waste eventually finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, adding to the county's miserable year of coastal pollution.
The data on sewage spills were compiled by The Times based on hundreds of pages of documents, including surveys sent to 34 agencies and cities about maintenance, funding and future needs. The Times also collected sewage spill information from the county and state.
While some of the spillage was caused by an aging sewer system that would be expensive to replace, most of it stems from easily preventable problems: pipes choked by grease or tree roots, or sewer lines that simply go unmaintained.
"Everybody is in deep trouble--they just haven't faced it yet," said Chuck Scheid, a member of a committee that spent two years studying the aging and decaying streets, sewers and storm drains of Huntington Beach.
After much of Huntington's coastline was closed last summer because of high ocean bacteria counts, regulators zeroed in on urban runoff, the toxic brew of animal waste, pesticides and other pollutants that drain from streets, lawns and parking lots. The pollutants stream into storm drains and waterways, eventually tainting the ocean.
Largely overlooked in this equation has been the raw human waste slipping into the waters from broken, seeping or stopped-up pipes via storm drains or creeks that empty into the ocean.
But data compiled by The Times show that problem pipes, even those 20 miles or more from the ocean, caused all of the 30 beach closures this year in Orange County--eight more than in all of 1999.
The number of sewer-pipe spills is on a pace to exceed last year's numbers, with five months left to go. In 1999, 264 spills in Orange County released 318,303 gallons of raw waste. Those numbers were up slightly from the year before.
It's impossible to know exactly how much of the spilled sewage hits Orange County's beaches from pipeline breakdowns each year. Nor is it clear whether the county's problems are worse than elsewhere in Southern California. San Diego County's ocean pollution problems frequently originate in the more polluted Mexican waters adjacent to it. Los Angeles County reports a minuscule number of sewage spills that reach the coastline, but some experts doubt whether those numbers reflect reality.
Efforts to apply a regional cure for neglected and aging sewers are hampered by a fragmented system. Two regional boards and 34 local agencies--all with different maintenance policies and capital improvement budgets--oversee sewage collection in Orange County, a patchwork of clay, concrete and plastic pipes so extensive that, if laid out in a straight line, would stretch from Seal Beach to Greenland and back again.
"Sewers for years have been out-of-sight, out-of-mind," said Nick Arhontes, manager of facilities maintenance for the Orange County Sanitation District. "People drive down the street and see a pothole, they get angry and call City Hall to see something done about it. But they may not know that their sewer system is more distressed than their streets."
Records show a clear link between spills and neglect.
Most Spills Were Avoidable
The waters off Laguna Beach have been sullied by 21,400 gallons of human waste during the last 18 months. In a sewer-line spill last month, barefoot beachgoers unwittingly sloshed through puddles of sewage, which city workers had failed to cordon off, on a street near the beach.
In Seal Beach, three of the four beach closures this year have been caused by inland sewer pipe blockages and breaks. In June, a blocked pipe overflowed 15 miles away in La Habra, sending 50,000 gallons of sewage into the San Gabriel River, which empties into the ocean just north of Seal Beach.
And in Dana Point, a 1933 pipe with hairline cracks ruptured in May, creating a hole the size of four cars. The force of the break shot 8,000 gallons of raw sewage into the street, closing half a mile of beach. The city says the cracks contributed to the rupture.
Most of these spills could have--and should have--been avoided by routine inspections and proper maintenance, experts say. The Laguna Beach spill in July occurred days after city workers ignored a resident's complaint about a backed-up sewer, which might have been leaking undetected for five months.
Laguna Beach approved a sewer-rate hike in July to pay for inspecting all of its lines with a video camera. The remote-controlled cameras creep through pipes, broadcasting pictures of the interior, and are considered the best way to find tiny cracks and buildup of clogs. When Huntington Beach used cameras to inspect its aging lines, workers discovered patches of sewer pipe that had been eaten away.
But in most cities, sewers take low priority.