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Local elected officials wasted no time patting San Diego on the back for a job well done when an unprecedented power outage left the entire region in the dark Sept. 8.
People did their jobs well. No major crimes were reported. Hospitals managed despite a couple problems with backup systems. As San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer put it in a Sept. 11 reflection, “The nation’s eyes were on San Diego. They saw a city with no lights, no power … and almost no crime. We defied expectations.”
What’s unfortunate is that, if we defied expectations, it means we expected a lot of things to fail. Maybe we were just happy that what did fail failed as we had planned it would.
Just more than two hours after the power went out, sewage started spewing from a manhole at Roselle Street near the I-805 and I-5 merge. For five hours, at an average rate of 8,600 gallons per minute, it kept going, and going, polluting the beautiful Los Peñasquitos Lagoon.
By the time it was over, combined with another spill in the South Bay, nearly 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the ocean and San Diego Bay.
Basically, the power went out and the city pooped itself. Beaches were closed all the way to Cardiff.
For decades, the city that depends on, and invests in, tourism above many other priorities, has struggled to do right by its beaches. San Diego has received a special waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency allowing us to treat our sewage at a lower standard than elsewhere. A decade ago, pipes were failing so regularly that major sewage spills defined political contests. Former mayor Dick Murphy had enough problems getting re-elected. He certainly didn’t need the massive sewage spills he got, which always seemed to come right before Election Day.
But most of those problems were due to faulty and old piping. Nothing broke when the power went out in September, the system just stopped working. Of the eight most important pump stations in the San Diego system, two did not have any kind of backup power source.
Some stations do have backup generators. One actually uses a natural gas feed to keep its engines running.
That’s Pump Station 2, in fact, by Lindbergh Field. It’s a very important facility that pumps wastewater over the hill of Point Loma where it flows down to the city’s most important treatment plant. If Pump Station 2 were to lose power — and then gas from San Diego Gas & Electric — well, that would be very bad. Sewage that is not able to go up would come down, and that facility could not hold everything that would come down.
Imagine the welcome to tourists that sight (and smell) at the airport would be.
The city’s fresh water system faces a similar deficiency. The blackout caused pumps to fail. This caused water pressure to drop. That raised worries that water from garden hoses or other outside sources might be sucked into the clean water system, contaminating it.
No contamination occurred. But boil-water notices bothered residents for days.
Roger Bailey, the city’s director of public utilities, estimated it would cost up to $3 million, at least, to install a backup generator for Pump Station 64 in Sorrento Valley. Protecting the whole wastewater and water systems from blackout would be a multiple of that number. And even if you provide backup power, that won’t help if an earthquake bursts dozens of pipes or a fire consumes a pump station. Where do you hedge your bets?
We live in a city where disaster isn’t all that hard to imagine. Twice in a decade, major fires have consumed the county. We’re not in prime earthquake country, but we’re not far from it.
Are we really just accepting that if power is knocked out by any of these forces or just a major grid failure, we’ll lose control of the city’s bowels?
Yes, unless we decide not to.
This also appeared in the November 2011 issue of San Diego Magazine.
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