The day before Thanksgiving, about 1.4 million gallons of wastewater began spilling from a corroded sewer pipe valve into Aliso Creek and coastal waters, initially prompting beach closures from San Clemente to Crystal Cove.
After working continuously on the sewage leak over the holiday and ultimately repairing the pipe last Friday, Laguna Beach city staff are now inspecting the rest of the valves along seven miles of pipeline and making note of additional repairs that may be needed. Officials are also looking into engaging an engineering firm to help identify ways to improve bypass capabilities along the city’s main transmission line and to improve future maintenance of its infrastructure.
David Shissler, the director of water quality for the City of Laguna Beach, gave a detailed presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting of the city’s response to the spill.
Shissler said the Nov. 27 leak occurred just after noon about a quarter of a mile up Canyon Club Drive and into the golf course, where the city has an air vacuum release valve vault. City officials previously noted that the leak occurred near the Aliso and Woods Canyon Wilderness Park and was from the city sewage system, not The Ranch golf course.
Shissler identified the cause of the leak as a 3-inch valve stem that had corroded along the North Coast Interceptor (NCI), which is the city’s main transmission line that takes the majority of its wastewater flow to the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon.
The portion of the pipe that burst is under constant pressure, Shissler explained, and crews were unable to access and fix the leak even during low flow at night. A 30-foot geyser jutted into the air from the 3-inch valve situated in the vault. “It was pretty awful,” Shissler said.
The decision was made to de-water the system—drain the pipe from McAulay Place and Coast Highway to the NCI access vault, as it proved unsafe to work on a highly pressurized line. Shissler said the other factor taken into consideration was expediency—the earliest estimate on getting a clamp delivered to the city was Friday, and officials wanted to fix the spill quickly.
“To minimize our sewer spill, we determined that going to the Bluebird SOCWA Lift Station and directly connecting our existing bypass straight into the storm drain and discharging it out to the ocean at that point was our best bet to stop the spill as fast as possible,” Shissler said, adding that he believes the choice to drain the pipe ultimately saved 1-3 million more gallons of wastewater from spilling into the ocean.
City officials initially estimated that about 4 million gallons of wastewater had spilled into coastal waters, prompting the widespread precautionary beach closures from Poche Beach in San Clemente to Pelican Point at Crystal Cove. That number was later reduced to 1.4 million gallons, which narrowed closures from El Moro Creek at Crystal Cove to the southern point of Dana Strands.
City officials said in a statement that the original spill estimates were made by city staff and contractors based on the capacity of the pipe, field observations that were limited due to conditions, and very rough estimates of the time it would take to make repairs. Revised estimates were based on flow meters, pump capacity, pump run-time, and the duration of the spill.
The Orange County Health Care Agency used the initial estimates to conservatively determine beach closures and revised the closures as more information became available.
Shissler said it took midnight to 11 a.m. to drain the pipe, but once it was empty, the valve was fixed within 45 minutes. He thanked his staff for working tirelessly through the holiday to stop the spill, as well as about 75 people from different agencies who assisted the city.
On Friday, Nov. 29, the city issued a statement that the pipe had been repaired and the spill stopped at 12:15 p.m. After being asked on Thursday to voluntarily reduce water usage through Friday morning, residents were directed to return to their normal usage.
On Monday, Dec. 2, the Orange County Health Care Agency lifted all beach closures.
Shissler said moving forward, the city needs “to do more and better.” He listed follow-up actions on Tuesday, such as completing an inspection of all of the valves and making additional replacements where needed. He said staff is also planning on engaging an engineering firm to review the NCI analysis that staff completed and identify opportunities to improve bypass capabilities along the NCI and improve maintenance in the future.
City Manager John Pietig pointed out that much of the seven miles of pipe can’t be inspected as it’s constantly under pressure. If a valve needs replacement in those sections, it can’t be done without a bypass, which he said could take several days and cost more than $100,000. Pietig said this is why city staff is recommending reviewing options to create quicker bypass opportunities.
“The options are going to be incredibly expensive,” Pietig said. “But I do think at some point we need to have an engineering firm do a comprehensive review and come back to the council. If we were to take some of these options, they most likely would be millions of dollars and require substantial rate increases. But I think it’s important that we at least identify those opportunities and have a conversation about what might be worth pursuing and what maybe isn’t viable.”
City Councilwoman Toni Iseman applauded staff for their work, but said she’s concerned that fixes are being discussed rather than change and new approaches to handling the city’s waste.
“We have a chance to not bury our heads in the sand. We have a chance to do something,” Iseman said. “I’m not sure what’s next, but I don’t think we have any choice but to move towards change.”
Shissler noted in response to Iseman’s concerns that South Orange County Wastewater Authority has been actively working with different vendors and looking at new options for handling wastewater at treatment plants.
Jinger Wallace, a co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, was one of several residents who spoke during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting about the spill. She asked the Council to work together to be proactive moving forward.
“It’s going to happen again. We now have a wake-up call. We now need to do something about this,” Wallace said. “I personally believe we should move that Coastal Treatment Plant out of Aliso Canyon. We’re going to do it someday. We can’t just keep patching it and think we’re going to somehow resolve this.”