Why You Shouldn’t Panic Over the OB Sewage Spill

Why You Shouldn’t Panic Over the OB Sewage Spill

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Signs at Dog Beach in Ocean Beach warn of water contamination.

Earlier this week, a huge batch of sewage gushed into the San Diego River, shutting down parts of Mission Beach and Ocean Beach. It made us wonder: How grody is the water that runs through our county?

It turns out it’s not an easy question to answer.

There are 573 bodies of water in San Diego County that are “too polluted or otherwise degraded” to meet water-quality standards, according to data from the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Water Resources Control Board. The biggest clusters of so-called “impaired waters” are in Otay Mesa, Escondido and Pacific Beach.

But those numbers aren’t straightforward either, said Rik Rasmussen, a manager in the State Water Resources Control Board’s water-quality division. Water can be polluted without posing a risk to human health, and the list of impaired water bodies only reflects where researchers have tested samples. Plus, there’s some dispute over what’s natural and what’s pollution.

“The numbers are tricky,” Rasmussen said, “especially when you start looking at the 303d list.”

The 303d list is shorthand for part of the federal Clean Water Act. The law requires states to identify bodies of water that need strict regulation. And the states are supposed to rank them based on how bad the pollution is and how the water is used.

Places where we swim and fish and sneak sips of beer — like Pacific Beach — are often on the list because fecal coliform (translation: poop bacteria) has a habit of getting into the watersheds that connect all of our water bodies.

In 2000, 34 million gallons of sewage ran into the San Diego River — the largest sewage spill in the state’s history — and no one knew it was happening for almost a week.

“Sewer spills are a major issue for the health of the river and the people,” said Rob Hutsel, executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation.

This week’s spill was much smaller, it’s still a public health concern because so many of San Diego’s homeless live in the canyons around Mission Valley, where the spill started, and they often bathe in the river and drink from it, Hutsel said.

But it doesn’t take a huge sewage spill to land a water body on the list. On San Diego’s rare rainy days, the mounds of dog crap that your neighbor left on the pavement can hitch a ride with the stormwater and make its way into a watershed. So can chemicals that seep out of car washes and industrial plants.

Researchers sometimes call this “urban drool,” and it slides easily across solid surfaces.

Urban drool is a big part of why there are so many impaired waters in Otay Mesa. But the Tijuana Watershed also runs through Otay, and it’s dragging bacteria and toxic waste into the mesa from Baja California.

SanDiegoCountyWatersheds

A map of San Diego’s watersheds drawn by the State Water Resources Control Board

The problem: Tijuana’s population is growing rapidly, but its sanitation system hasn’t kept pace.

“Trash in many cases is being burned in Tijuana,” said Oscar Romo, a UC San Diego professor studies water quality in the Tijuana watershed. And when that happens, hazardous ash gets into the soil and the water.

Couple that with the fact that so many toilets aren’t hooked up to the sewage system in Tijuana, and you have yourself a double whammy.

In Escondido, the impaired waters are linked to Escondido Creek. And it’s one of those places where water-quality monitoring can get even more complicated.

“One of the problems we have here is there’s a lot of listings for selenium,” said Travis Pritchard, a research manager for San Diego Coastkeeper, a nonprofit that keeps tabs on the region’s water quality.

Selenium is a natural byproduct of rock erosion, but it’s also found in manmade products like dandruff shampoo and insect repellant.

If it’s natural, it’s not really pollution. And if it’s not pollution, it doesn’t really need to be regulated.

“Sometimes these city and water board people throw their hands up and say, ‘It’s natural,” Pritchard said. “It’s easier to say it’s natural.”

Either way, selenium is toxic to humans in high doses. So are many other chemicals that find their way into our water.

And that’s why water researchers are working on ways to grade the quality of water and make the data tell the whole story.

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Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego. You can reach him directly at joel.hoffmann@voiceofsandiego.org.

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21 comments
Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Hoffman: Thanks for this. There is a very long history of problems related to sewage spills in San Diego. For awhile they occurred regularly and were sometimes huge (e.g. closing Mission Bay for weeks, etc.) Extensive work was done to remediate this at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. These days they are much less frequent. The way County Health normally hears of these spills, I believe, is when the water departments inform them of a sewage break that got into a storm drain and into a waterway. As well, citizen reports and occasionally random testing.

County Health posts advisory signs and closure signs, I believe, the latter when the threat to public health is particularly high. (Closures can be legally enforced.) In my view, people shouldn't panic, but they definitely should not enter the water when these postings are present. It's a real health threat. During the recent posting at Dog Beach I saw two kids surfing in front of the signs and thought how foolish.

Most of the time, I think random testing has indicated that our waters are pretty clean these days. Way better than they used to be. My sense is that people can normally be pretty confident about the ocean water being adequate healthy, except after a rain. There are no guarantees because random testing is just that and the results take time to be analyzed and reported.

People can receive general beach safety, surf, and contamination information by calling the San Diego Lifeguard Service's recording anytime to learn if there are closures along the city of San Diego shoreline (619-221-8824). For contamination specific information for the entire county, County Health has a recorded line at 619-338-2073. For the prudent or concerned, a call to these numbers prior to visiting the beach is worthwhile.

As for the Tijuana River Valley, Mr. Dedina and his colleagues have their work cut our for them. The US can't legislate what comes floating across the border. We can only encourage, cajole, and clean. Today, for example, County Health reports sewage contamination at the outflow of the Tijuana River.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Maybe something a bit more recent would be helpful?County of San Diego: Beach and Bay Monitoring Programhttp://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh/water/beach_bay.htmlOur beaches are a precious natural resource to those that live and visit San Diego County. Poor water quality at our beaches not only threatens the health of swimmers and beachgoers but also hurts San Diego's ocean-dependent economy.What do you know about water quality at local beaches?http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff-the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories-by deve...

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Wasn't one of Filner's jobs in congress to clean up the TJ sewage problem? How much has the US spent on this issue, for no real results?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Wasn't one of Filner's jobs in congress to clean up the TJ sewage problem? How much has the US spent on this issue, for no real results?

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina

Joel--interesting story, but we'd love to take you on a tour of the Tijuana River Valley so you can get a first-hand glimpse of the sewage, trash, sediment and waste-tires impairing the water quality of the Tijuana River and the southern end of San Diego County, where beaches have been closed for weeks. Ironically the biggest source of solid-waste pollution in the Tijuana River and Estuary is caused by the State of California that sends millions of waste-tires south across the border to Mexico that end up washing back north of the border when it rains and literally filling in the Tijuana Estuary, a state and federally protected wetland.
Serge Dedina
Executive Director
WILDCOAST

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina subscriber

Joel--interesting story, but we'd love to take you on a tour of the Tijuana River Valley so you can get a first-hand glimpse of the sewage, trash, sediment and waste-tires impairing the water quality of the Tijuana River and the southern end of San Diego County, where beaches have been closed for weeks. Ironically the biggest source of solid-waste pollution in the Tijuana River and Estuary is caused by the State of California that sends millions of waste-tires south across the border to Mexico that end up washing back north of the border when it rains and literally filling in the Tijuana Estuary, a state and federally protected wetland.
Serge Dedina
Executive Director
WILDCOAST

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Panic over a sewage spill? I guarded the coastline for some 22 years and I never observed that reaction. My colleagues and I did however, get inoculated against Hepatitis A and B, avoided contaminated water when we could, and stayed out after recent rains. There's a difference between panic and prudence. Plenty of people I know contracted various ailments they attributed to contact with polluted water rightly or wrongly.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Panic over a sewage spill? I guarded the coastline for some 22 years and I never observed that reaction. My colleagues and I did however, get inoculated against Hepatitis A and B, avoided contaminated water when we could, and stayed out after recent rains. There's a difference between panic and prudence. Plenty of people I know contracted various ailments they attributed to contact with polluted water rightly or wrongly.

Joel Hoffmann
Joel Hoffmann

Thanks for your insight and the added context. The impaired waters data is current. And I saw this story as a launch pad for looking into San Diego's water quality . I encourage anyone who has concerns they'd like us to investigate to email me at joel@vosd.org.

Joel Hoffmann
Joel Hoffmann

Thanks for sharing this, Chris. To be clear, we're not trying to downplay the fact that sewage can and does make people sick. We want to help people understand the nuances of pollution data.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Maybe something a bit more recent would be helpful?County of San Diego: Beach and Bay Monitoring Programhttp://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh/water/beach_bay.htmlOur beaches are a precious natural resource to those that live and visit San Diego County. Poor water quality at our beaches not only threatens the health of swimmers and beachgoers but also hurts San Diego's ocean-dependent economy.What do you know about water quality at local beaches?http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff-the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories-by deve...

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina

Hi Jim:
Actually the situation has improved considerably over the past 10 years. There is a new sewage plant on the U.S. side of the border, 3 new plants in the Tijuana region and we are doing a much better job of managing the TJ River. Additionally govt. agencies are working together better to fix problems and quicker. That doesn't mean that things are prefect-but we are moving forward. It will always require lots of effort on the part of community residents and organizations to make sure that the system is working and that agencies on both sides of the border are actually doing their job. You are always welcome to come and help out during the many cleanups we hold throughout the year.
Cheers,
Serge

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina subscriber

Hi Jim:
Actually the situation has improved considerably over the past 10 years. There is a new sewage plant on the U.S. side of the border, 3 new plants in the Tijuana region and we are doing a much better job of managing the TJ River. Additionally govt. agencies are working together better to fix problems and quicker. That doesn't mean that things are prefect-but we are moving forward. It will always require lots of effort on the part of community residents and organizations to make sure that the system is working and that agencies on both sides of the border are actually doing their job. You are always welcome to come and help out during the many cleanups we hold throughout the year.
Cheers,
Serge

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina

Hi Joel:
Thanks--and to clarify--the issue of waste-tires is this: California exports waste tires to Mexico--and then they are piled up around Tijuana or used to buttress homes in colonias. When it rains and during flooding they wash back into the Tijuana River and down the canyons and gullies of western Tijuana, where they end up filling in the Tijuana Estuary. Despite the passage of SB167 to deal with this, the State of California refuses to deal with the problem so agencies are spending up to $1 million a year to clean up tires from the Tijuana River Valley-tires that the State of California originally exported to Mexico. Ironically California consumers pay a tire tax every time they purchase a tire that should go into a fund to prevent this from happening. But the funds are not being spent to prevent the problem as in this case and the State refuse to implement SB167. The Voice covered this issue a few years ago when we thought that passing a law to deal with this would be the solution--but that would require California to actually in good faith implement the law.

Joel Hoffmann
Joel Hoffmann

Thanks for your insight, Serge. I'm definitely interested in seeing this for myself and learning more about how San Diego affects the Tijuana water quality.

Best place to reach me is joel@vosd.org.

Serge Dedina
Serge Dedina subscriber

Hi Joel:
Thanks--and to clarify--the issue of waste-tires is this: California exports waste tires to Mexico--and then they are piled up around Tijuana or used to buttress homes in colonias. When it rains and during flooding they wash back into the Tijuana River and down the canyons and gullies of western Tijuana, where they end up filling in the Tijuana Estuary. Despite the passage of SB167 to deal with this, the State of California refuses to deal with the problem so agencies are spending up to $1 million a year to clean up tires from the Tijuana River Valley-tires that the State of California originally exported to Mexico. Ironically California consumers pay a tire tax every time they purchase a tire that should go into a fund to prevent this from happening. But the funds are not being spent to prevent the problem as in this case and the State refuse to implement SB167. The Voice covered this issue a few years ago when we thought that passing a law to deal with this would be the solution--but that would require California to actually in good faith implement the law.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

I'm too busy to look it up, but the EPA guidelines allow for something like 1 in 25 to get sick from a dip in the big pond.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Hoffman: Thanks for this. There is a very long history of problems related to sewage spills in San Diego. For awhile they occurred regularly and were sometimes huge (e.g. closing Mission Bay for weeks, etc.) Extensive work was done to remediate this at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. These days they are much less frequent. The way County Health normally hears of these spills, I believe, is when the water departments inform them of a sewage break that got into a storm drain and into a waterway. As well, citizen reports and occasionally random testing.

County Health posts advisory signs and closure signs, I believe, the latter when the threat to public health is particularly high. (Closures can be legally enforced.) In my view, people shouldn't panic, but they definitely should not enter the water when these postings are present. It's a real health threat. During the recent posting at Dog Beach I saw two kids surfing in front of the signs and thought how foolish.

Most of the time, I think random testing has indicated that our waters are pretty clean these days. Way better than they used to be. My sense is that people can normally be pretty confident about the ocean water being adequate healthy, except after a rain. There are no guarantees because random testing is just that and the results take time to be analyzed and reported.

People can receive general beach safety, surf, and contamination information by calling the San Diego Lifeguard Service's recording anytime to learn if there are closures along the city of San Diego shoreline (619-221-8824). For contamination specific information for the entire county, County Health has a recorded line at 619-338-2073. For the prudent or concerned, a call to these numbers prior to visiting the beach is worthwhile.

As for the Tijuana River Valley, Mr. Dedina and his colleagues have their work cut our for them. The US can't legislate what comes floating across the border. We can only encourage, cajole, and clean. Today, for example, County Health reports sewage contamination at the outflow of the Tijuana River.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Serge,
County reports and a quick look show
2002: 122 closure days
2012: 161 closure days

Not sure what your definition of "improved considerably" means.

http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh/water/beach_bay_historical.html
County of San Diego: Beach and Bay Historical Reports and Summarieshttp://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh/water/beach_bay_historical.htmlTwo of the primary goals of the Beach and Bay Monitoring Program are to document information about water quality at San Diego's beaches and bays and provide this information to the public. There are a number of ways this information is disseminated t...

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Waste tires are not the real problem, raw sewage is. Raw sewage from TJ carries disease into the ocean.

Waste tires are an inconvenience, and are certainly easier to spot than cholera or parasites that thrive on the sewage, but they are not the main issue.