Touring Laguna’s Underground

Visitors check out the stabilized section of the water district’s sewer tunnel through the coastal bluffs.
Visitors check out the stabilized section of the water district’s sewer tunnel through the coastal bluffs. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Getting past complaints over a five-year, $100 million project to widen a sewer tunnel and lay new pipeline in Laguna Beach’s coastal bluffs has been a major public relations hurdle for the South Coast Water District, which serves South Laguna and other cities.

When the water district opened its tunnel doors at Aliso Beach and Thousand Steps Beach for public tours this week, just 40 people showed up. Asked why more people didn’t dive into the tunnel immersion invitation when there were continuous complaints about the proposed sewer stabilization project, John Langill, superintendent of operations with the water district, commented, “You’d think.”

Noise-reducing walls and new truck routes, among other concessions, were added to the water district’s plan, which comes before the city’s planning commission for final review of conditional use and coastal development permits and environmental impact next Wednesday, Dec. 18.  The project is set to begin in March unless appealed to the City Council.

The district spent $4,000 on the tours, including a community relations consultant and public announcements, said Joe McDivitt, SCWD’s operations director, who started the tour with an opening presentation in front of the Sands Café at Aliso Beach.  McDevitt pointed to a panoramic ­­­­­­­­­­overview of the residential and beach areas through which the pipeline travels.  More than 200 homes starting from South La Senda Drive in Three Arch Bay to Aliso Beach sit above the pipeline and dump sewage into it through 82 connector pipes.

Nancy and Andy Boone, who moved from Laguna Beach proper to Three Arch Bay in 2012, came to the tour out of curiosity, personal and professional.  Boone sells sewer pumps for lift stations.  “We saw this advertised, so we said, ‘Let’s look into it,’” said Boone. “If something were to happen, we’d know about the infrastructure. Honestly, if the district feels this is important enough to offer information about it, we’ll take advantage of it.”

The current pipeline, installed in 1974, carries 1 million gallons of sewage a day through downhill gravitational flow starting from the north portion of Dana Point to Aliso Beach, where an electric-powered lift station pumps it uphill one mile to the South Coast Wastewater Authority’s coastal treatment plant.  There, it is treated to meet state discharge standards and released through an outfall pipe into the sea a mile from shore.

“I read about the tour and thought it was an opportunity to see behind the scenes,” said Kate Bartholomew of Dana Point.  “People go on sewer tours in Paris, after all.  It’s more historical.  I just like to see what’s involved when you flush the toilet.”

Tuesday afternoon’s group of 15, the third and final tour, looked in the shaft at the south end of Aliso Beach just to get an idea of the small circumference of the original workspace, hardly more than crawl space for very small people.  McDivitt said the original builders didn’t think about how long the tunnel would last, exponential population growth or the capacity the pipeline would need to carry.

The new pipeline will carry the same amount of sewage and will be placed on top of the old pipeline after it’s covered with cement.  Hatches in the cement will be installed to allow access to the old pipeline, which is being kept intact as back-up. Some parts of the old pipe, where it’s buried under the sand at Aliso and in the bluff behind Camel Point, will be kept intact and used, relined and connected to the new pipe due to gradient and alignment difficulties.  The lining, said McDevitt, makes it like new. The new pipeline is expected to last at least 100 years, he said.

The tour group was then shuttled in water district minivans south to Thousand Steps Beach.  At the bottom of the seemingly endless steps down to the beach, the group walked to another shaft leading to the tunnel.  Around the bend, half the group looked into an old, small shaft to the south and a bigger, improved tunnel to the north.  The old pipe was covered in concrete so workers can stand on a solid surface.  The walls were widened to nine-feet by nine-feet high then sprayed at high velocities with fiber-reinforced mortar originally known as gunite because it was shot from a compressed-air hose and invented by a taxidermist.

The other half of the group toured the newly blasted and casted tunnel, standing fully upright and listening to McDevitt explain the process.

Carl Goodwin lives within feet of the tunnel project’s staging site across Coast Highway on Fourth Street in South Laguna. South Laguna neighbors have complained for years about potential noise, excessive dust, possible rerouting of trucks as well as the pipeline and the expected unsightliness of the work area. “The neighbors are working hard to mitigate the impacts of that construction work,” said Goodwin.  “The water district’s done quite a bit to reduce impacts there.  None of us have any idea of what it’s really going to be like when the rubber hits the road.”

The project will be paid for by 30-year bonds as well as district reserve funds, said district officials.  Customer rates, which will cover debt-service payments, may also be affected.

Tunnel tours are part of the water district’s campaign to win over critic’s of its proposed five-year project. Photos by Mitch Ridder
Tunnel tours are part of the water district’s campaign to win over critic’s of its proposed five-year project.
Photo by Mitch Ridder
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  1. I would’ve gone, but never heard anything about it. If they are still wondering why not many people showed up it may be because of the lack of advertisement and the timing during many people’s work days?

  2. It’s amazing how $4,000 could have been spent to promote this, yet keep it such a well kept secret. I read all of the “usual suspect” media in town and never heard a peep about this.

    Or maybe it was like that Chamber of Commerce celebration held a few years back- at 1PM on a work day at Main Beach, where only the unemployed or homeless were able to attend.


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