Let’s Make Progress
By Michael Beanan
Every day each of us contributes to a sewage system serving 232,000 residents from Emerald Bay and Laguna Beach to the Dana Point Headlands plus another half dozen inland cities. Annually, 3.9 million visitors add their contributions. The Aliso Ocean Outfall, operating since Oct. 1 on an expired permit, discharges 15 mgd (million gallons per day) through an ocean diffuser only 1.2 miles off of Aliso Beach and the Montage resort. An average of 1,300 pounds of Total Suspended Solids (TSS) – use your imagination here – accompanies these discharges according to Heal The Ocean in Santa Barbara.
Annually, this amounts to feeding 5 billion gallons of secondary sewage with known contaminates into a submerged “wastewater plume” of indeterminate size, shape or behavior. According to recent studies, the bioaccumulation of hormonal endocrine disruptors (among other sewage borne viruses, pathogens and toxins) feminizes the reproductive traits of local marine life. Adding to these flows are other cumulative discharges annually exceeding 240 million gallons of highly toxic aviation contaminates from the El Toro Marine Corp Air Base, following 50 years of pollution into the huge central Orange County aquifer. Like air pollution, we can do better.
Water for Laguna comes primarily from the Colorado River via a 242-mile aqueduct through one of the hottest deserts on earth thus losing significant amounts through evaporation on its journey. Before the development of this aqueduct, the Colorado River supported the massive Colorado Estuarine at the top of the California Gulf and a major migratory flyway. Downstream flows provided irrigation to subsistence farmers in Northern Mexican villages. This reallocation of water is done to supply Laguna Beach and other Southern Californian communities with energy intensive imported water. We have a responsibility to use this water wisely and limit what is sent away down the sewer drain.
So where is “away”? Closer than you think.
For Emerald Bay, Laguna Beach, North Dana Point and other inland cities, “away” is South Laguna, inland to the Coastal Treatment Plant at the Aliso Golf Course and then to the sea. Laguna’s secondary treated sewage is sent via a threatened infrastructure buried along Aliso Creek and pumped to a depth of 170 feet offshore.
Warm wastewater must naturally form a plume but, according to wastewater engineers, does not reach the surface due to colder, denser upper seawater thermocline. Eventually the plume must spread along the seafloor to be sent up and down the coast with warm Baja currents and Southern swells.
Sewage nutrients and Santa Ana winds produce an upwelling to feed pythoplankton and algae blooms that soon die to form red tides and potentially unseasonal harmful algal bloom events. Nobody knows for sure the extent of the plume because, according to the expired Aliso Ocean Outfall permit, nobody monitors it.
The solution to local ocean pollution is a sustainable water management program for all of Laguna. Less than a third of Laguna’s sewage is recycled and used only in South Laguna parks. The majority of our city remains the only “once through” water user surrounded by a vast, sophisticated network of citywide recycled water systems in Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Hills. These cities irrigate miles of landscaped “greenbelts” by using recycled water. The recycled water significantly reduces ocean sewage discharges, shade the urban heat sink, filter automobile air pollution, mitigate climate change, increase property values, create wildlife habitat and reduce the need for more energy intensive, imported water.
Laguna can take the lead in the race to a sustainable global green economy. Grants and partnerships with community organizations, water districts and the private sector are available. Let’s build a citywide system for Laguna to irrigate fire protection zones in the Laguna Greenbelt while reducing the risk of wildfire damage to homes with an independent hi-purity, “new water” system. A comprehensive, energy independent emergency water system will be priceless during the next disaster and may help reduce the fire insurance premiums of homeowners in this challenging economy.
The renewal of Aliso’s sewage discharge (NPDES) permit affords us an opportunity to promote less sewage discharges through more recycled water programs. Since this water can be useful in regional disasters and emergencies, recycled water standards would be equal to or exceed those for potable drinking water.
Let’s not make a stink…let’s make progress.
South Laguna resident Michael Beanan is a board member of the South Laguna Civic Association.