Little Impact Seen From Latest Pipe Break
Temporary beach closures from Ocean Beach to Mission Beach, including part of Mission Bay, due to a massive weeklong sewage spill, appear to have had little effect on coastal businesses.
The latest in a series of sewage spills went undetected for a week after Feb. 21, when a clogged main diverted its contents into the San Diego River, and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean at Dog Beach.
A reported 36 million gallons of untreated sewage ended up in the water. San Diego’s beaches near the river were closed down when the leak was discovered Feb. 28.
Donna Frye, co-owner of Harry’s Surf Shop in Pacific Beach, said this is only the latest in a series of several sewage breaks that have closed local beaches, a major recreational attraction to tourists and residents alike.
“The city is well aware that the pipes are in disrepair, that they’re old, and that they need to be fixed or replaced. I wonder when that’s going to happen , when this actually becomes a priority issue?” said Frye, who is also the San Diego pollution program manager for the Center for Marine Conservation.
She noted there have been fish die-offs, and other marine animals, such as crawfish, have also been affected.
Worries About Health Impacts
Frye also worried about possible health damage, as surfers and other people were using those beaches that week. She heard of one woman who took her dog to the beach, only to see him develop an infection.
Sewage spills are not new to the area, Frye said. In 1998, 80 percent of all the beach closures were caused by sewage spills, she said.
Also, the 36 million gallon spill, although the most heavily publicized, was not the only sewage leak so far this year.
Her preliminary estimates show that 65,000 to 85,000 additional gallons of sewage have ended up in the same area from other spills elsewhere, she said.
Ron Kole, public information officer for the Municipal Wastewater District, conceded the spill was unusually large , roughly equal to six or seven of Shamu’s tanks at SeaWorld , but he downplayed its effect.
“It was an unfortunate large spill that did little or no environmental damage,” he said.
John Robertus, executive officer of the water quality board, noted although there were some fish in Alvarado Creek killed by the sheer amount of wastewater, the water diluted the sewage by the time it got to the San Diego River. There were no major environmental problems downstream, he said.
Isolated Reports Of Illness
There were also some isolated reports of people developing illnesses from surfing when the sewage spill was occurring. Other than that, the results were fairly limited, said Chris Gonaver, division chief with the county Department of Environmental Health.
The spill was caused when heavy rains knocked over a tree in a remote section of Alvarado Canyon, breaking a manhole cover. The resulting hole allowed dirt, rocks and debris to get into the sewage main, creating a clog, Kole said.
Since the sewage had no place to go, it bubbled out of the hole and into Alvarado Creek , and from there into the San Diego River.
The leak went unnoticed since the break was in a remote location and the heavy rains diluted the sewage, so there was no smell, Kole said.
The spill was detected the following week, when an engineer’s aide in the billing department checked out one of the meters for the sewage main Feb. 28. Seeing a discrepancy in the flow, he contacted his supervisor, Kole said.
Once the leak was found, MWD took action. Within an hour, the Regional Water Quality Board was notified. Within six hours, the sewer line was unclogged, and within 12 hours, the hole was repaired.
The cost of the repair was $12,000 , higher than usual since the break’s inaccessible location required the wastewater district to use an oversized crane, which they parked along I-8, Kole said.
Ocean Beach was closed that day. On Feb. 29, the ban was extended to Mission Beach and parts of Mission Bay, against the south-flowing current, Gonaver said.
County health officials monitored water pollution along the coast before reopening the beaches March 3, with the exception of Dog Beach.
That beach remains closed, although the cause of the contamination there might not be related to sewage spill, Gonaver said.