UPDATE: As of 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, The OC Health Care Agency Environmental Health Division has reopened coastal areas from Laguna Avenue to Thalia and Pearl to Blue Lagoon. Thalia to Pearl remains closed until further notice.
Those planning on swimming, surfing or diving in the ocean along Laguna Avenue to Blue Lagoon will have to hold off for a few days after a Nov. 29 sewage spill prompted the OC Health Care Agency (HCA) Environmental Health Division to close a two-mile stretch of Laguna shoreline until further notice.
According to the county, a force main sewer line located at Bluebird Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway broke during repairs and is said to have caused the sewage spill, estimated at almost 95,000 gallons.
A force main is a pipeline that transfers pressurized wastewater from the discharge side of a pump or pneumatic ejector to a treatment plant. In other words, the city’s main sewage line.
HCA said ocean water-contact sports are off limits in the affected area until two consecutive days of water quality monitoring results meet AB 411 Ocean Water-Contact Sports Standards.
As of Nov. 29, HCA closures are in effect at the following beaches: Cleo Street Beach, Bluebird Canyon, Pearl Street Beach, Victoria Beach and Blue Lagoon Beach.
Untreated sewage released into the ocean could result in swimmer exposure to pathogenic bacteria, viruses and protozoans such as E. Coli and Salmonella, among others. These organisms may cause diarrhea, gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, and other ailments and may be present at or near the site where the polluted discharge enters the water.
The spill may also affect local marine life.
“Sewage spills can increase nutrient levels in marine sediments, alter water chemistry, and decrease both the water clarity and oxygen availability, leading to possible increased algal blooms and bioaccumulation of pollutants in marine organisms,” OC Health Care Agency Spokesperson Ellen Guevara said.
Bacteria, viruses and protozoa levels caused by the sewage spill will decrease over time due to sun and saltwater exposure, age, predation by other organisms and dilution.
Roger Bütow, 50-year Laguna Beach resident and founder of the 23-year-old non-governmental organization Clean Water Now, believes the incident could have been avoided if the city invested more money into environmental stewardship.
“Laguna is so unique. How many other coastal gems like this have these issues constantly?” Bütow said. “This city is a cheapskate, cuts corners, finds other places to spend our yearly surpluses, in the millions for decades but almost nothing to upgrade and modernize. What good is a bunch of multimillion-dollar parking structures if tourists read about our pitiful environmental stewardship record and stay away? It’s not supposed to be Laguna Beach: home to the pageantry of a huge sewage spill.”
The county’s 2021-2022 Ocean, Harbor and Bay Water Quality Report states a total of 85 sewage spills along the Orange County coastline were reported to the water quality team last year, “well below the 35-year average of 184 spills per year.”
Out of the 85 sewage spills reported in 2022, three resulted in ocean water closures.
Since 1999, pipeline blockage due to root infiltration, grease buildup, and other unknown causes has been responsible for an average of 72 percent of all beach closures, according to the county.
“We commingle the storm drain by diverting it six months of the year to our wastewater system, so a lot of grit and soil, coarse debris, etc., end up in our sewer system,” Bütow explained. “This can deeply affect the pumps and other infrastructure, internally degrading them faster than their normal lifespan. So do all of the corrosives in household chemicals. Sewage produces hydrogen sulfide gas. That rotten odor is a sign. If trapped, it’s highly flammable and toxic.”
For information about Orange County ocean, bay or harbor postings and closures, call (714) 433-6400 or visit www.OCBeachInfo.com. To report a sewage spill, call (714) 433-6419.
Correction: Roger Bütow has been a resident of Laguna Beach for 52 years. Clean Water Now was originally the CWN Coalition, established in late 1998. It’s now entering its 26th year.