Letter: Laguna’s ocean water quality is a public priority


On Wednesday, Nov. 29, approximately 95,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled out along our coastline areas from Laguna Avenue to Blue Lagoon.

With the area polluted by our very own human waste, I couldn’t help but think about our fragile ecosystem and what effect this will have, both short term and long term, for our aquatic life, not to mention the quality-of-life issues for the folks who live along the beach and the many businesses that rely on it. I can’t stop asking myself, how could we let this happen? 

When Amplify Energy spilled thousands of gallons of oil in our ocean, killing land and marine life and closing businesses, we were all rightly outraged. What happens in our state and federal waters is out of our control. We rely on the good actors, or, in Amplify’s case, the bad actors, to maintain their infrastructure and to sound the alarms immediately in the event of a failure to minimize the impact. But in this case, the spill of raw sewage now polluting our shores and water is our fault. We have no one to blame but ourselves. And it’s not the first time. As recently as November 2019, one million gallons of sewage spilled into the ocean near Aliso Beach. Some have suggested this November timeframe has to do with the city’s strategy for managing runoff in the winter. 

Recently, David Shissler, a civil engineer with many years of experience in building and maintaining sewer facilities and training employees, retired as the city’s director of the Water Quality Department. Under his management, the department was divided into two divisions, one handling sewers and the other handling stormwater infrastructure. The city has since rolled these divisions into the Department of Public Works and Utilities. Instead of finding and hiring the top candidate to focus on our water quality, the city eliminated Shissler’s position. To me, this seems to indicate that water quality and public health and safety are less of a priority.

I would think bringing on an experienced engineer and ensuring we have the latest and greatest technology, infrastructure and staff would be among the city’s top priorities. Instead, we chose to have a void in leadership by eliminating positions, all while having old and failing infrastructure. In a town where ocean water quality is a public priority, how should we interpret this coastal city eliminating the department with that sole responsibility?

Judie Mancuso, Laguna Beach

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  1. Like Sisyphus, I guess as both an enviro-NGO leader but also an eco-analyst specializing in water quality over a 26 year career, I’m condemned to a a constant public education and re-education cycle.
    So away we go:
    (1) This event did NOT spill out ALONG 2 miles of our coast, the singular Point of Discharge (POD) was the Bluebird beach storm drain outfall, almost directly below the Surf & Sand.
    It is pro forma to post and close equidistant from the POD, hence 1 mile upcoast, 1 mile downcast.
    Understanding how ocean currents work + the tidal topography near there, or using Google Earth or a similar application, one could see it’s a mini-bay, a coastal indentation.
    So 95,000 gallons probably wouldn’t physically migrate beyond Cress Street upcoast and Pearl Street downcoast.
    Regardless, one of the decision tree factors is the volume, so out of public health and safety caution, 1 mile up and 1 mile down.
    OCHCA immediately starts testing asap, focused at the extreme ends, and begins opening up the same way, working back towards the POD, where the fecal concentrations are most likely to be the highest. This is why those extreme edges were reopened soonest.
    Two factors that made everyone lucky was that the S&S Hotel is going through significant remodeling, most appears closed and not inhabited. It did rain a little too, hence few if any recreational users on the beach itself.
    That stated, I’ve read the actually spill report filed with the SD Regional Water Quality Control Board & also mandatory OC Health Care Agency (OCHCA): The event that took place occurred around 5-6 am, pre-dawn.
    No one has yet provided me or my NGO, Clean Water Now (CWN) with the specifics: At what time was the 2 mile stretch closed, and by which staff employees? Public Works? LB Marine Safety? Both in tandem?
    One can assess themselves, it appears that took place HOURS later, meanwhile the sewage horse was already out of the storm drainage system barn, on the beach and into the ocean.
    I was interviewed at the POD by Spectrum News 1 tv journalist Logan Hall this week, the City used a bulldozer and built up a berm to contain and strain out fecal bacteria——but once again, did the berm go up and capture the sewage BEFORE it was discharged? I seriously doubt that.
    (2) The Thanksgiving 2019 event information is inaccurate: 1 million gallons (mg) POD wasn’t spilled into the ocean NEAR Aliso Creek (then) County Beach. 1.37 mg was, and the POD WAS that Creek mouth/beach.
    500,000 gallons was barfed onto Bluebird Beach, the total being 1.87 mg, at 2 different PODs.
    After some jostling and jousting with CWN, Media eventually got that right. So did the SDRWQCB when they fined us.
    (3) Additional “411:” In order to de-pressurize the North Coast Interceptor System, the common collector running under PCH from E-Bay down to Aliso and thence upstream 1.5 miles to the Coastal Treatment Plant wastewater facility, to facilitate emergency repairs?
    De-pressurization took place at the same pump station that caused this recent spill. There isn’t anywhere else to go but the storm drain intake at the terminus of Galen Way (a short street that runs parallel to, inland of PCH), outside the station.
    The intake is set into ground at Galen, easily viewed.
    It is then routed into the larger storm drain system which, as I noted, POD is that ocean outfall.
    (4) Another fact: There have been numerous, much larger sewage spills at Bluebird, plus one just 2 blocks south on PCH that daylighted, pushed manhole covers off. I walked down and viewed raw sewage, toilet paper, etc. covering PCH curb-to-curb, it was mostly from Diamond to Pearl.
    PCH was shut down for hours.
    There’s actually several other things in the LTE that are either inaccurate or a result of not understanding how spills are actually responded to or the interplay between storm drain and wastewater systems.
    I’m not criticizing Ms. Mancuso, or denigrating her enthusiasm, k?
    If more community leaders like herself stood up and expressed their outrage, we’d all be better off.
    She’s obviously expanded her compassion circle, to humans and ecosystem degradation.
    I hope she runs for CC, god knows we need to hit the “refresh button” in Chambers.
    In fact I’m positive that 95% or more of our population (City Council included) don’t know or have taken the time to educate themselves, acquire a higher level of comprehension.
    Especially how distressed our systems are and how critical rapid emergency response tactics must be.
    These systems should be “wedge issues” for the upcoming 2024 CC race.
    Biggest questions for the Mayor if he runs again is this: Why do you think that spending a few million/year on normal overhead, usual Operation & Maintenance suffices?
    Why on your watch, with millions every year in surplus, if public health and safety, quality of life you’ve championed, haven’t you led the way and invested 2 million/year in long range preemptive, proactive approaches instead of after-the-fact bands glossed over with PR propaganda?
    Ive heard these same “new dawn, new day” promises for 26 years, meanwhile we’re stuck in a nightmare we can’t wake up out of, an “Endless Bummer.”

  2. Judie, THANK YOU for caring so much about the beautiful ocean we center our worlds around and are tasked with protecting for all. Speaking up and asking valid oversight questions is so important. Frankly, I’m disappointed that more locally known ocean environmental protection organizations in our community have not spoken up.

    Roger Butow,
    THANK YOU for the your leadership efforts in protecting our water resources. Your endless decades of diligence is very much appreciated by the public. Let’s put an end to this “Endless Bummer” scenario and vote in community care-taking professional elected’s that will place city priorities where they should be and influence the county and state-wide agencies to help us resolve them. Address real stakeholder issues and find solutions in the publics best interest and welfare. No more campaign driven special-interest donor investment proposals like we have seen over the last decade.

    Agree, this will be a 2024 election wedge issue. I also agree that the Mayor should be held accountable. Three Terms equalling 12 years/7 years as Mayor and MPT should have been enough time to LEAD and address such serious issue. During this leadership I am aware of the 2017, 2019 and 2023 substantial sewage spills which have earned us a horrific polluter title. Not acceptable. Next Elected please.

  3. What is more important to Laguna Beach than a healthy ocean? With world class art venues, hotels and restaraunts, Laguna’s other best asset is underwater among the teeming sea life recovering now from ten years under the California Marine Protection Act. We a have an Art Commission and Planning Commission but no Ocean Commission to educate, manage and motivate protection of Laguna’s most precious resource – the ocean. Sea life is silent so your voice matters.

  4. Mr. Fisch:
    I sent out a email blast correcting a column that I’d written about our chronic sewage spills, lack of any significant funding for anything beyond maintenance.
    My correction about location was necessary as there were no specifics regarding “Point of Discharge,” pinpointing the specific place where it hit Victoria Beach and possibly the ocean (called “receiving waters of the state”).
    I eventually determined the POD as being just barely inside the SCWD service area, so no, this wasn’t a spill that the City will be held accountable for.
    All browsers should re-read what I wrote above: From the POD the beach is first posted equidistant upcoast and downcast. Wasn’t rocket science, a simple calculation for professionals like myself or savvy activists.
    Working backwards, Vic got posted from the upcoast Pirate’s Tower down to Goff/Montage, so that means that POD was probably in Lagunita.
    That said, 2 mitigating factors are in place there, localizing the spreading:
    (1) Using Google Earth®, or just plain old knowledge of Vic’s conditions, it’s kind of a “mini-bite,” a cove….Goff downcast, Pirate’s Tower upcoast. So semi-contained by geological marine features.
    (2) At “only” around 1900 gallons, it might have been discharged from a storm drain outfall pipe that wasn’t connected directly to the ocean due to terrain features plus the tide. That amount COULD be absorbed by the sand.
    As an analyst, I’d have to cross reference the tide and EXACT both exact POD and time of the discharge.
    What’s truly tragic is that the public is being forced to self-educate, or be educated at a more refined level by people like me in opportunistic places like this: That’s because our own government doesn’t, and when you live in a place where these spills become “Ho Hum” to people like ex-mayor Whalen, awareness becomes even more critical.
    God knows he’s not, aware that is.


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