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Sewage Spill Raises Questions About Pump Stations

A dead fish found at the Los Penasquitos Lagoon is a casualty of the sewage s...

Credit: San Diego Coastkeeper

Above: A dead fish found at the Los Penasquitos Lagoon is a casualty of the sewage spill that occurred following the San Diego County-wide blackout.

Most of San Diego is back to normal after last week's blackout, except our coastline. We'll get an update on a major sewage spill from San Diego Coastkeeper.

Most of the effects of the big blackout have been resolved by now. Spoiled food is off supermarket shelves, traffic lights are working again, and many of us have a full tank of gas. But areas of San Diego's coastline are still suffering the effects of a sewage spills caused by the blackout. More than 2 million gallons of sewage were released by the spills and the county environmental department says it's going to take a while to assess the full amount of damage.


Jen Kovecses, staff scientist for San Diego Coastkeeper

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Most of the effects of the big blackout have been resolved by now. Spoiled food is off super market shelves, traffic rights are working again, many of us have a full tank of gas. But areas of San Diego's coastline are still suffering the effects of sewage spill, caused by the blackout. More than two million gallons of sewage were released by the spills, and the county environmental department says it's going to take a while to assess the full amount of damage. I'd like to introduce my guest, Jen Kovecses is staff scientist for San Diego coast keeper. Hi Jen.

KOVECSES: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I want to invite our listeners to join this conversation. If you were affected pie the sewage spills as a result of the blackout, if you'd like -- if you have a question or comment business give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. I've read that the blackout caused two sewage spills, one that was major. So where were the spills located?

KOVECSES: Okay. That's a good question. The two spills that we experienced, one, the major one, as you said, was in Los Peñasquitos Creek, which is north of Torrey Pines state beach at a pump station near the cover station by Sorrento Valley road. The other one was in sweetwater creek, which is -- flows into San Diego bay. That spill was at a pump station very close to the bay.

CAVANAUGH: How much did that one -- that was the minor one of the two.

KOVECSES: The minor one of the two. Right now, it's estimated that that spill was approximately 100 and 20,000 gallons. The spill at the Los Peñasquitos Creek was right now being estimated to be approximately two million gallons.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what are the effects of that, in other words are beaches still closed because of these sewage spills?

KOVECSES: In the immediate aftermath of the spill, many beaches were closed. I think approximately a dozen miles of coastline was closed. As of this morning, the beach at the out the of Los Peñasquitos Creek, so at the lagoon mouth, and north to the fifteenth street in Del Mar is still closed. And bayside park in San Diego bay near Chula Vista is currently closed. I would color your listeners to check coast keeper's beach status web page.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to invite our listeners again, if you've seen any signs posted about beaches being closed or had any questions about those closings, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. Still, the major spill that you're talking about, almost two million gallons in Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, that was described in some really powerful detail in some of the respects that I've read. What was that like? What did it lack like?

KOVECSES: Based on reports from our water monitoring volunteers who happened to be on the scene on Saturday morning, they reported smelling very strong smells of sewage, the water was a dark gray brown, opaque, so you couldn't see the bottom of the creek. And they observed in their words at least a dozen dead fish. Subconsequent to those observations, it just happened that that site was also where we take our regular water monitoring samples, so our volunteers were able to grab samples from that site.

CAVANAUGH: What did you find?

KOVECSES: Those samples came back showing much higher than normal for key indicators like bacteria, the bacteria levels were six helped times normal. The ammonia and phosphorous were about 60 times higher. And there was essentially no oxygen in the water.

CAVANAUGH: And that caused the fish to die.

KOVECSES: Presumably, all fingers point to that being the reason yet fish died

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that I read was that county environmental officials were saying that the bacteria levels were going up along the coast as the sewage in the lagoon moved to the shoreline. How long of a process does that take for that sewage to move out of the lagoon and actually dissipate into the ocean?

KOVECSES: That would generally depend on flows in the creak, and how fast the water was moving out. Until this situation, what we think has happened is the pump station is it up-stream from the lagoon. Then there's a portion of the creek that flows into, like, a thick area of wetland plants. And water from the sewage spill had ended up had the stream from that, and it's slowly moving its way through the wetland area and into the lagoon and out to the beaches. Which is, I think, why county department of environmental health is noting over time the bacteria levels are increasing at the out the of the lagoon as opposed to decreasing. It's faking more time to move through that area.

CAVANAUGH: And it doesn't mean the spill is still occurring something.

KOVECSES: As far as we know, the spill has been stopped. It took several days because it was from Thursday evening to Saturday before our volunteers defected the sewage pond in the creek. And it was Saturday to Monday before pumps went in to remove sewage from that part of the creek.

CAVANAUGH: How long will it take to clean up?

KOVECSES: The immediate cleanup, pumping out the sewage from that area in the creek I think is ongoing. It started Monday evening and I think it's still going. But I'm not 100% sure of that. In terms of cleaning up the whole impact, the ecological impacts of that. That's a big question. We have yet to determine what the ecological damage was of that spill. So I think the investigation will allow us to understand a little bit better about how long it will take for that to receive.

CAVANAUGH: We do -- we are inviting our listeners to join us on the line at 1-888-895-5727. Matthew is on the line from La Mesa. And welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate the show.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. What's your question?

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I'm interested in mission bay. Down around the aquatic center, if there's any sewage impact to mission bay. And what's the health of the bay around mission bay, if it's a healthy place to be.

KOVECSES: As far as we know, there were no direct impacts from this particular sewage spill on mission bay. And coincidentally you I suppose missed it, but a couple of months ago, coast keeper had a public forum on the health of Mission Bay where we had local experts talking about your question, and the general assess. In one rhine would be that mission bay used to have really, really major challenges with water quality. There's been some effort on the city's part to restore water quality in mission bay. And there's been many successes, but there's still some significant challenges there. We do see regular beach closures, either from localized sewage spills or from unknown events that close beaches in mission bay. So I would encourage you to check out our website. You can see all the presentations from that event, the signs of the tide, if you want to get more technical details. And if I want to learn on a day-to-day basis if any of the beaches in mission bay are closed, you can check our web page.

CAVANAUGH: Who is responsible for this spill into Los Peñasquitos Lagoon?

KOVECSES: So, the pump station is part of the City of San Diego's wastewater collection system. The official responsible party is the City of San Diego. The regional water quality control board along with Department of Fish and Games and state park are going to work together to coordinate the investigation and potential enforce. Actions.

CAVANAUGH: There's a regional water board meeting taking place today right?

KOVECSES: It happened this morning.

CAVANAUGH: Jill Wakowsi is local director for San Diego coast keeper am she was at that meeting this morning. And she's on the line with us now. Hi Jill.

WAKOWSKI: Good afternoon, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What did you talk about?

WAKOWSKI: Several staff members from San Diego coast keeper spoke about the regional board's quote in the press that the spill wasn't so bad. We summarized our water monitoring data, and we urged them to have a swift and decisive response, specifically asking for an investigative order to trigger official action by the city and the regional board. We heard from some regional board staff who said that investigation is ongoing, and there's cooperation with federal and state agencies.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of action are you recommending?

WAKOWSKI: There's a specific order, it's called a 13267 order that actually requires the city to go out and quickly investigate the problem and identify specific steps to take to avoid it from ever happening again.

CAVANAUGH: And the specific steps would be.

WAKOWSKI: That's a good question: We think preliminarily it would involve having a stricter response when power outages go out, having a backup system that you know works, and having a swifter response instead of multiple hours of a pill occurring, and then having people out there if there is a spill pumping sooner than five days later.

CAVANAUGH: Let me keep you both on the line. I mean -- Jill on the line and Jan here in the studio. And ask you both, why did we not have more spills from other pumping stations caused by the blackout? What was it, if you can -- fun, Jen, what was it about this pumping station and the other smaller spill, what went wrong there?

KOVECSES: I think that's the two million gallon question. We don't really know yet why particularly pump station 64, which isn't the only pump station apparently that does not have a backup generator that one in particular had such significant problems when others did not. And we're hoping that as the investigation moves forward, that's going to be one of the main pushing points. What was it that happened here that didn't happen elsewhere? I think that is an important piece of information to understand how do we prevent this from happening again?

CAVANAUGH: Jill, there was any discussion on that during the meeting today?

WAKOWSKI: We did get a new piece of information from the executive director of the regional board who said that that bump station did not have sufficient backup, and that pump station has had a checkered past. But there was no investigation as far as a time line.

CAVANAUGH: So what are the next steps, Jill?

WAKOWSKI: Well, are the regional board will continue to coordinate with the state and federal agencies. And hopefully at some point, they will issue an order requiring the City of San Diego to take specific steps to change their plan of how to deal with power outages and steps to restore the areas that have been harmed by the spill.

CAVANAUGH: Jill Wakowsi, legal director for San Diego coast keeper. Thank you very much for speaking with us. And we are taking your calls about the sewage spills that resulted from the big blackout last week. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Charlotte is on the lineup from Solana beach. Hello.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello. My question is, last Sunday, I saw the sand at the Del Mar dog beach had been moved in, blocking the exit from the lagoon into the ocean. So since that was the case, and I assume it still is the case, how does the polluted water exit the lagoon?

KOVECSES: Well, I have not seen that at Solana beach, but I would assume if they have fully blocked the out the of the lagoon into the Oceanside, then that polluted water is not actually exiting the lagoon.

NEW SPEAKER: Right, right. Exactly. So then what happens?

KOVECSES: Any impacts would be felt in the lagoon and would -- I think the idea, either that's part of regular lagoon management and not particularly as response to the sewage spill or they did that specifically to keep the water from flowing to the beach. But I don't think that's a standard protocol for department of environmental health. So I suspect that's either something that the lagoon mouth naturally builds up sand, or it is something that's part of the beach management there, separate from this particular event. But I'm not 100% sure about what the particular protocols are for that beach.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for the phone call. Did you tell us, Jan, that the reason we found out about this spill at Los Peñasquitos Lagoon in such a timely manner was because you had volunteers, coast keeper volunteer, taking some readings?

KOVECSES: That's our understanding right now. We know that there was an investigation on Friday to look at the creek and the beach. And that I did not discover the impacts of the sewage in the areas where they looked. Pause of our monitors were going out on their regular monthly event on Saturday morning, we asked them to checkup and down stream. They didn't see any evidence of sewage spill at the pump station. When they went further down stream, where our regular monitoring site is, they noticed all of these impacts that I mentioned previously.

CAVANAUGH: Did that get the city or the county involved in looking again at different pump stations to -- rechecking just to make sure?

KOVECSES: I don't know if that -- as soon as we are -- our volunteered report what they observed, Travis Pitch our lab coordinator made a report to the Department of Fish and Game, and we notified the regional water board. People were notified immediately. I don't know if resulted in other pump stations having more investigations, but I know that that did result in more people going out at that particular site.

CAVANAUGH: Now, by a timely coincidence, coast keeper has inaugurated a new volunteer pollution patrol just this week. This is not -- this is sort of an expanded version of your can monthly monitors. Tell us about what this new program is.

KOVECSES: We've started this other program in part because we have had such an enthusiastic response for volunteers in our water monitoring on program. Bee wouldn'ted to find a useful out the for our monitoring. We started this thing called pollution controllers. We train residents to understand what pollution looks like in an urban area. And what are management practices supposed to look like. Then we send them out to different areas on a quarterly bases to basically do a patrol in very specific areas. So for example, if we're interested in management practices in construction sites in Rancho Bernardo or wherever, we go out and they look for weather, there's silt fences were up there's active construction going on. And if there's not, we gather that data, and report it to the people who are supposed to be responsible for those things. So if there are problems, they can be reported swiftly, and make sure that we can prevent pollution getting into our water ways.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how is it that people are going to be trained for this?

KOVECSES: So they sign up with us. You can do that through Dylan Edwards at coast keeper. And we have regular training events on a quarterly basis. We have one coming up. You can check our calendar for that, and we give them a visual presentation of what pollution looks like. What laws say that we should be doing about those types of pollutions and what management Mr. Practices should be put in place to address those types of pollution. So people get an understanding of visually what they should be looking if are, and how to report that information to the appropriate authorities.

CAVANAUGH: It's like a neighborhood watch for the coast.

KOVECSES: Exactly. Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Now, which they go out and look to see whether there's proper fencing at cob instruction sites and so forth, what are some of the major concerns that we have here in San Diego? Things that do constantly show up in problems with spills and run-off and things of that nature?

KOVECSES: One of the major water quality challenges we have in San Diego for our coastline and in-land waters is run-off. Storm water pollution is one of the major sources of pollution. The biggest challenge with urban run-off suit has a million different sources in our landscape. Every car, every road, every barking lot contributes here and there. What we're trying to do is get people to be the eyes and ears on the ground looking for these problems so that we can make sure that each of those little pieces to the pollution puzzle get addressed.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm wondering, with your patrols, with the new patrols that you're going to be instituted with the volunteers that you have, you spend -- coast keeper spends a great deal of time monitoring to make sure that the coast is clean and people can go surf and swim and be healthy. When you heard about this blackout, did you think maybe oh, I thought we were over that? I thought that wouldn't happen and that kind of thing?

KOVECSES: I'd love to say that I thought that we were over those types of problems. But when you workday in and day out on inland and coastal pollution issues, you know that we have ongoing problems and challenges. And while many of our agencies have made great strides to improving parts of our infrastructure, there are a lot of challenges ahead especially as we look toward shrinks bottoms, les enforce. There's still a big need to pay attention.

CAVANAUGH: And if people do want to sign up for this new volunteer patrol, what should they do again?

KOVECSES: Check our website at We have an events calendar, if you look on the left-hand margin of our main page, you'll see a hyper link that you can click through. And that will given them all of the information for signing up and who to contact.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Jen Kovecses with San Diego coast keeper. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KOVECSES: No problem. My pleasure.

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