Opinion: Spill response suggestions are neither achievable or realistic 

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By Roger Bütow

Charlene Thomas’ well-intentioned Tips for the sewer repair crew letter to the editor in the Dec. 29, 2023 edition of the Independent offered suggestions that are, for the most part, neither realistic nor achievable.

They ignore the gamut of various, unique site conditions, compounding the challenges our crews face. One size does not fit all.  

Some are outright impossible to implement due to the complex North Coast Interceptor (NCI) pumping system’s functional elements and physical locations.  

We are not embarking on the crucial task of repairing old pipes,” nor for that matter, even modernizing our relay stations. That’s City Hall Kool-Aid.  

On my 26-year watch, we have yet to invest any significant funds earmarked, i.e., specifically dedicated to Laguna’s future health and safety, our common heritage, although we have millions in surplus each budget cycle. 

The City has basically taken a band-aid approach: Deferred maintenance, repairing things as they’re either on the verge of failure or delaying work orders until a calamity hits. A dominantly reactive, not proactive approach.  

The millions that ex-Mayor Bob Whalen alleged recently, extolled in damage control mode through media, aren’t upgrades.  

In fact, they’re only routine operation and maintenance efforts. Our budgeted overhead is in the low, single-digit millions, the price of being in the wastewater utility industry.  

In the 95,000-gallon Bluebird event, crews were in the former mode, rehabbing a valve (on the verge), and we’ll only know the whole truth after the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board issues its final report.

They might impose a fine, especially if we were found lacking, but right now, conclusions from the general public are premature. 

By mandate, we must have generic spill response standards and plans on file with the SD Regional Board. Their staff peer reviews and requires periodic updating from all reclaimed and wastewater utilities under their compliance purview. 

Residents should note that there’s actually a series, a daisy chain of pump relays, “lift stations,” that keep the ~ 2 million gallons/day wastewater system volumes moving.  

The North Coast Interceptor (NCI) is, therefore, a type of “forced main” collection and transmitting system. Albeit under somewhat low pressure, yet still enough to keep the volumes moving over terrain that dips, rises, then dips again.  

Keep in mind that it’s not just human excreted waste, but also toilet paper and anything else that goes down the drains of homes and businesses. So it’s not all water. There’s a lot of coarse detritus being pushed.  

The scenario that Thomas proposes can’t be fully accomplished. Dominantly, in these situations, the crews have no idea how severe it’ll become. They can’t foretell the future.  

They can’t possibly predict blockages leading to spills, let alone how many vacuum or suction trucks they’d need to have in staged backup posture. 

This valve repair effort had crews working overnight. Imagine how the immediate neighbors would feel, hearing trucks idling in such compressed environs, blocking tenants on Galen Drive? Starting it up from scratch might or might not be fast enough.  

These suction trucks are maintained and constantly inspected by our vehicle maintenance department. Thus, the verification or certifications Thomas is alluding to are already part of the infrastructural and personnel Best Management Practices as required by regulations.  

Frankly, I can’t recall any failed response occurrence exacerbated by backup truck failures. I’d add that they are radio dispatched and have connectivity with HQ back at City Hall, plus other crews in case of the need for a greater, more robust and expedited emergency response. 

The Bluebird spill would have required several trucks in rotation. Most of these vehicles hold in the 10-15,000-gallon capacity range. The dispatcher can’t possibly know the eventual volume needing capture, but in hindsight, the math is easy: seven to 10 truck trips.  

That stated, Galen Drive, which terminates at the Bluebird Lift Station, is very narrow. The logistics of these oversized, cumbersome trucks, the dynamics of rotating and wheeling them in and out of that particular street, are very difficult.  

The multiple backups would have to have been queued up and down Bluebird Canyon Drive; you could only get them in and out one at a time, and 100% guaranteed recapture or containment was pretty much impossible. 

Last, although I don’t believe that our crews are getting the best training tools that money can buy (the City cutting educational corners), they are extremely conscientious and proud of their performance.  

The real “waste blockage” is in the brains at City Hall. 

Roger “Gonzo” Bütow is a 52-year resident of Laguna Beach. He’s co-founder and Executive Director of the unincorporated association known as Clean Water Now. A retired general contractor, since 2010, he’s been a professional land use and regulatory compliance consultant, plus provided environmental and construction advisory services. His contact information can be found at www.clean-water-now.org.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. FYI:
    I notified the staff in the enforcement division at the SDRWQCB yesterday (1/11/2023) of CWN’s desire to procure the final report and transmit to me, and will keep Indy readers updated.
    The wastewater JPA we belong to, SOCWA, held its monthly BOD meeting, the Director of Environmental Compliance (Ms. Amber Baylor) yesterday too, where Ms. Baylor announced a draft but no final report as yet.
    CWN has had very serious reservations about SOCWA’s vendor for many years and is considering challenging that final report. We’ve repeatedly demanded that this “homer” vendor be taken off of the agency’s spill response team, the biologist corporation that peer reviews impacts.
    On Thanksgiving 2019 we discharged 1.37 million into Aliso Creek just upstream of the beach.
    And to repeat another fact that seems to keep getting overlooked is that in order to repair that NCI connector on the Resort Golf Course that geysered, ≈500,000 gallons was discharged at the foot of the Surf & Sand Resort, on Bluebird Beach.
    Total: 1.87 million gallons.
    That same vendor alleged that the ecological damage to Aliso Creek, Aliso Beach and the most recent spill was NIL—no adverse environmental impacts to receiving waters.
    Obviously, the vendor is “brown washing” (arh arh) via reports that are questionable at best.
    Who in their right mind believes that these volumes can be barfed into a creek or our ocean, into designated Marine Life Protection Act waters with impunity, without ramifications, consequences?
    If you think that way, submit your application to SOCWA, you might have a steady job.
    Which at the rate Laguna’s going, is guaranteed, lifetime employment!

  2. Roger, this is an extremely well written and deeply informative narration. Thanks for being respectful of Charlene Thomas because I think you are correct, she certainly was not merely well-intentioned but did a good job sounding the alarm. But to this reader, who is a public works illiterate, your exegesis seems authoritative and definitive in mapping out the daunting challenges we face managing waste water. Did you really say 2 million gallons a day? That makes the Bluebird spill 5% of that days waste, still catastrophic and “totally unacceptable” to be sure. But that zero-tolerance standard can be both preached and practiced only by those of us who either never use the toilet and/or don’t have public works jobs and responsibility for preventing spills, and stopping them when they happen, every hour of every day, week, month, year, without an intermission much less an end. Lastly, having grown up on Divers Cove and Fisherman’s Cove, I remember back to circa 1955, if my memory serves me, holding my nose every time I negotiated my way past the lift station now in the Boat Canyon ravine behind the condos that I recall being built on the bluff above Divers and Fisherman’s a few years later, circa 1959-1960. It may sound funny, but when we were walking down to Fisherman’s one day I finally asked my dad what was behind that door from under which a foul sludge that I was always careful jumped over seeped, and when he told me it was what we euphemistically refer to as a lift station, I could hardly believe it. Over the years I have always been aware of what you call the “daisy chain” of lift stations at all my favorite beaches that seems so improbable and untenable, and at the same time utterly imperative to preserve the sanitation we so presumptuously take for granted. As an engineering illiterate I have never stopped asking myself if there isn’t a better model than gravity and pumps, and I assume the answer is no. P.S. Love new words, thanks for “detritus,” I think it may have application and interdisciplinary efficacy in narration of our political culture in 2024.

  3. ERRATA: Sentence beginning “It may sound funny” “careful” should be “carefully” and after “lift station” maybe insert “to pump raw sewage” for readers struggling to track my ridiculous run-on sentence.

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