Last week’s torrential rains created a cluster of sewage spills in Southern California that, at any other time, might’ve been huge environmental news.
On Monday, Feb. 5, about 8 million gallons of raw waste flowed into the Dominguez Channel and from there, into the ocean at Cabrillo Beach. Just before and just after that event, at least four smaller spills hit Seal Beach, Palos Verdes and Doheny Beach among other places.
All of the spills were rain-related and all posed measurable threats to public health.
But, collectively, the spills also exemplified the stakes in what many experts describe as a race to save the ocean off Southern California, a race that’s shaped by global warming, public money and time.
Either cities and counties will redesign the century-old network of underground pipes, cemented rivers and culverts used to control sewage and storm runoff in much of Southern California, or, experts say, we’ll suffer as climate change causes enough huge storms to pull us back to a time when the Pacific Ocean was the region’s de-facto toilet.
“Stormwater is the number one source of pollution to the ocean and all our regional waterways, including rivers and lakes,” said Katherine Pease, director of science and policy for Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based non-profit that produces an annual “Beach Report Card” and advocates for cleaner waters in the ocean and elsewhere.
“That’s a big concern,” Pease added.
“Our storm drain and sewer systems, which for the most part have been working for many years, have become aged. Now, when we see events like this week’s storm, we see a huge pollution problem.”
That certainly played out this week. In each of the spills, health officials found that bacteria and viral counts, and evidence of fecal matter, were all high enough in the ocean off Los Angeles and Orange counties to close beaches from San Pedro to as far south as Anaheim Landing.
In that sense, experts said, this week’s spills were yet one more thing — a glimpse of one possible future.
Depending on the time period you’re talking about, and the type of pollution you’re measuring, the local ocean is either a lot healthier today than it used to be, or it’s an ecosystem in decline.
And most shifts in ocean health, experts say, are connected to the ways that water, sewage and garbage are handled on land.
“We’re better than we were in a lot of ways,” said Garry Brown, founder and executive director of OC Coastkeepers, a Costa Mesa-based watchdog group that has pushed for ocean health for several decades.
Specifically, Brown said, water districts, cities and the county are working to prevent physical chunks of garbage from flowing through rivers, streams and water channels down into the ocean. Water agencies and others now routinely use devices that block and/or capture debris before it reaches any beach.
It hasn’t ended the problem. Brown noted that his organization held 84 beach clean-up days last year, largely related to garbage that hit the ocean. “The good news is we had 84 of them,” Brown said, laughing. “That’s also the bad news. We needed 84 of them.”
But, bigger picture, he said the debris issue isn’t as profound as it once was.
“We’ve learned tricks. We’ve invented best management practices. Cities, now, are required to manage stormwater runoff, and that’s true for counties and anybody that produces runoff.
“We’re just generally a lot better at reducing some types of pollution,” he added. “And people really care about it.”
But Brown and others said that when it comes to other types of pollution, including sewage, industrial pollutants or even fertilizer from community parks and greenbelts — stuff that heavy rains carry from cities and suburbs and farms into pipes and drainage channels — progress has been slower and, in some cases, has reversed.
“We started to plateau in this, generally, probably just before the recession, around 2005 maybe ’07,” Brown said. “A lot of people just started to say ‘No, we can’t afford to do more.’
“It’s why people are focused on fixing pipes. The resistance from (polluters) is pretty strong.”
In much of urban Southern California, storm runoff and wastewater are handled by two separate but closely related networks of pipes — a storm drain system and sewer lines. The storm drains handle rain and urban runoff, which can include everything from motor oil to diapers. The sewage system handles what comes from toilets and home taps.
Critically, most of these byzantine networks — which have grown to include thousands of miles of pipes and drainage channels and huge underground cisterns — were designed decades ago, when the ocean was viewed as an appropriate terminus for all that foul water.
“It was based on gravity,” Brown said. “Basically, pipes were built so the water would flow to the lowest point.”
Often, that was the beach.
As a result, even though most people now see storm and sewer water getting into the ocean as a bad thing, the design of our water infrastructure makes it hard to avoid. When 8 million gallons of sewage flowed into Cabrillo Beach this week it was, in a sense, what the system was designed to do.
That, experts said, is changing quickly.
“Look, when Heal the Bay was formed (in 1985), the major issue that our founder saw was that the Hyperion (Wastewater Treatment Plant) was releasing partially treated sewage directly into the ocean, as a matter of policy,” said Pease.
“That’s not happening anymore. And part of that is because changes are being made, as possible, here and there, but as quickly as they can be made.”
It’s unclear how much work is needed. Pease and others say water agencies are working appropriately on aging and vulnerable points.
Another unknown is money. Though voters nationally differ strongly on the need for environmental mitigation, some recent events suggest Southern California taxpayers are willing to finance water improvements as needed.
Brown pointed to how Orange County voters in 2006 approved a change in Measure M, so that some of the county’s half-cent sales tax can be used for filters on storm drains and other infrastructure that help clean up the ocean.
And Pease noted a property tax called Measure W — billed as the “Safe, Clean Water Act” because it pays for projects aimed at capturing and treating recycled rainwater — was approved by two-thirds of the voters in 2018 in a special district of Los Angeles County.
“Nobody likes rate hikes or higher fees,” Pease said. “But there is public support for cleaner water. We do need to make it clear what the true costs are for water pollution, and hold polluters accountable.”
The accountability side of that was on display this week.
A day after the new 8-million-gallon spill was reported at Dominguez Channel, the state announced a deal with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District over a massive 8.5 million-gallon spill that hit the same area over New Year’s weekend in late 2021. (And that spill was the biggest in a series of 14 incidents that hit the area from 2018 through ’21.)
As part of the deal, Los Angeles Sanitation will spend about $6 million to create a water capture system and improve groundwater treatment at Calas Park, a recreation area in Carson that state officials said has been “unfairly burdened” by multiple sewage and storm water system failures.
But spending can only improve how excess water is handled or stored. What it can’t do is prevent the water from coming.
Even in an era when big, weird storms seem to be more common, the atmospheric river that hit Southern California this week was particularly big and weird. As much as 11 inches of rain landed in some parts of Los Angeles County during a single 24-hour period.
Nobody is suggesting that size of storm is the region’s new normal.
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But the nature of the storm — warmer than usual for winter, wetter and intense for a brief period — is expected to become more frequent.
And the size of this storm, while outlandish, is part of a broader trend.
Until recently, even one-inch rains were rare in Southern California. In the 1930s — a decade that saw massive flooding and prompted the creation of the Prado Dam and moves to pour concrete under the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel rivers — federal weather records show just five years in which Los Angeles and neighboring counties saw a single storm that generated an inch or more of rain.
After this week, Southern California has seen storms of an inch or more in 14 of the past 15 years.
Such storms generate more water than engineers or politicians imagined a century ago. Now, experts say, it’s a reality that could determine the future health of our local ocean.
“Rain is a good thing,” Pease said. “And in an era when drought will be a lot more common, we should be able to embrace it fully.”
Part of that embrace is for water agencies to get better at capturing stormwater. Pease noted that public works projects in Los Angeles County are believed to have captured about 3.6 billion gallons of rain this week, a sliver of the estimated 85 billion gallons hit the area.
Much of the excess, whatever it was, flowed into the ocean.
“Most of our systems are being designed to be at overcapacity, at times. And that’s great. If rain is coming in shorter, more intense bursts, we have to figure out how to handle it,” she said.
“But we’re not quite there yet in terms of infrastructure.”