In what could become one of the state's largest sewage spills, a pipe leading from a notorious Sorrento Valley sewage pump station ruptured Thursday, sending millions of gallons of raw sewage into Los Penasquitos Lagoon and the ocean.
San Diego City water officials, calling the incident tantamount to a "disaster," said that 20 million to 30 million gallons of sewage will backwash into the lagoon and ocean before the pipe is repaired today and the pump station back on line.
That spill would be among the largest ever in California, dumping into the ocean the sewage equivalent to what is produced daily by a city of 200,000 people, said Terry Wilson, an EPA spokesman in San Francisco. Wilson said that several months ago another large spill dumped eight to 10 million gallons of sewage into the East Bay near San Francisco.
Mayor Maureen O'Connor responded to the Sorrento Valley spill by calling on residents living north of Miramar Road to refrain from "unnecessary flushes from the toilet . . . postpone dish washing and clothes washing" and to "cut down the time people spend in the shower."
In addition, the spill triggered a city ordinance imposing an immediate moratorium on the issuance of building permits for the fast-growing communities served by the facility, known as Pump Station 64. That moratorium covers Sorrento Valley, Penasquitos, North City West, Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch, among others in San Diego's northern tier.
"I think we've reached catastrophic proportions today," said Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose 1st District includes the Pump Station 64 area. "Now, we do not know how to control the spill."
Wolfsheimer said, however, there was a chance that heavy rains forecasted for the San Diego area today could help alleviate the spill by diluting the sewage, flushing it through the lagoon and washing it away from the beaches.
County health officials will be checking this morning to see how much of the beach, if any, should be quarantined. Signs warning against swimming have been posted near the mouth of the lagoon.
The spill couldn't have come at a worse time for the city, which is spending $20 million to immediately upgrade the pump station. A succession of capacity problems, mechanical errors and human miscues have caused the pump station to overflow into the lagoon 59 times in the last eight years.
The last sewage spill from Pump Station 64 came when 1.5 million gallons overflowed into the lagoon on Thanksgiving Day--an incident that prompted the regional Water Quality Control Board to impose a fine of $1.5 million against the city. The majority of the fine was suspended, but the city was still forced to pay a record $300,000 for the holiday accident, which was blamed on operator error.
Thursday's mishap "took everyone by surprise," said Yvonne Rehg, spokeswoman for the city's Water Utilities Department. "It's definitely a shocker. It's definitely a disappointment."
Rehg said the pipe that broke was the 36-inch "force main" that leads away from the station, over a 300-foot incline and to the city's waste water treatment plant in Point Loma. The pipe is concrete-reinforced steel, she said.
The main cracked, however, when the pump station suffered three weather-related power interruptions between 9:30 and 10 a.m. During the momentary interruptions--the longest was 10 seconds--sewage reversed its flow and headed downhill toward the pumps, said Rehg.
As the sewage backed up, "check" valves on the pumps closed to prevent the pump station from flooding. With nowhere to go, the sewage built up enough pressure to rupture the underground pipe about a quarter-mile from the station, said Rehg.
The rupture sent sewage gushing through a field and into Roselle Street, where the pump station is tucked in a row of businesses.
Jennifer Ikel, manager of the Premier Services Recovery, said one of her employees saw the sewage erupt from the pipe, which is buried in a field at the end of Roselle Street. The break sent effluent streaming into a lot where the firm keeps 250 repossessed cars, she said.
"It was like a geyser that had gone 10 feet into the air," said Ikel. "It was unbelievable. We had cars and the water was up to the doors."
City water officials shut down the pump station at 10 a.m., leaving the 19.5 million gallons of sewage that flow through the system daily nowhere else to go but into the lagoon and eventually the ocean.
Rehg said the rupture was six inches wide and 24 inches long. Although administrators first feared it could take two to three days to repair it, Regh said Thursday evening that water department crews will be able to patch the pipe by sometime after noon today.
"We could lose between 20 and 30 million (gallons of sewage) because you're talking between 24 to 36 hours," Rehg said about the overflow.
City Manager John Lockwood said Thursday he doesn't believe state water pollution officials, who have the power to impose a $10 fine for every gallon of sewage spilled, will hold the city liable for the accident.
"If we had, due to negligence or lack of effort, caused the problem, I would be very concerned," said Lockwood. "But at least to this point, it looks like the staff did everything it could. It was beyond our control.
"In this case, we were the victims of the problem, not the cause of the problem," said Lockwood.
Mary Jane Forster, chairman of the regional water board, said she "tends to agree" with Lockwood, but added that she and her colleagues will have to wait for a full report on the spill, most likely at their April meeting.
"This is a very difficult position to be in," said Forster. "We already know that the pump station and its adjoining parts have big problems. The city is working very hard to correct the problems . . . .
"I tell you, I think that when you impose a big fine, you have to be able to prove that it (an accident) was willful and negligent," said Forster.
Thursday's incident is sure to sharpen the debate between those who believe the problems at Station 64 are a series of unrelated mishaps and others who argue the station is fatally flawed because of inadequate capacity.
Lynn Benn, chairperson of the Torrey Pines Planning Group and a resident near the lagoon, has argued publicly that beleaguered Pump Station 64 is ill-equipped to handle the burgeoning sewage needs of northern San Diego, and she termed the spill Thursday as "inevitable."
Benn said her community, which borders the lagoon, has long complained about the station and other sewer problems that send waste water into the streets.
Despite that, water and city officials continue to allow developers in San Diego's northern tier to hook into a sewer system that is "inadequate to carry all of the sewage being pushed into it," said Benn.
"We found the water board and the city to be really unresponsive. The appearance to us in this community is that it was growth at any price," she added.
City water officials and building industry representatives, however, say Pump Station 64 has the capacity to handle the current and near-future sewage needs of northern San Diego, along with the cities of Del Mar and Poway. They point to a $20-million capital improvement program aimed at installing larger pumps and a second force main, thus increasing the station's capacity to 35 million gallons a day by 1988.
"In terms of the harm to the community, a spill of this magnitude and duration is obviously devastating, obviously much worse than anything that has happened," said Kim Kilkenny, legislative counsel for the Construction Industry Federation, which represents 1,400 builders, architects and lenders.
"Again, it is important to emphasize that it's not a capacity problem," said Kilkenny. "The station wasn't near capacity. The problem, as I understand it, was due to the temporary stoppage in the surge of power, causing the line to burst."
Kilkenny said construction in the Pump Station 64 service area accounts for 20% of the building in San Diego County. "It is not the least bit fair to make future home buyers the whipping boy for the city's inability to operate that station in a safe manner," said Kilkenny.
On Feb. 20, Lockwood ordered that builders could continue to pull building permits for construction in the area, but they would have to promise not to hook up until November, when two new 500-horsepower pumps are installed at the Sorrento Valley station.
Lockwood issued that directive because calculations by the Water Department showed that the number of outstanding hookup permits granted in recent months could mean theoretically that the total amount of sewage flowing to the troubled pump would exceed its 20.5-million-gallons-a-day capacity.
The city manager said he didn't expect that to happen because there is an average of six months between the time a developer pulls his permits and hooks up a new home or business into the sewer system. He also said that developers, fearing a moratorium because of Pump Station 64, were stockpiling the building permits just in case.
The moratorium triggered by Thursday's spill, however, supersedes Lockwood's directive last month and prevents the city from issuing any building permits at all. Lockwood said he would urge council members next week to lift that ban and stay with his previous directive.
How Pump Station 64 Works
Pump Station 64 collects up to 40 million gallons of raw sewage a day from residences and businesses in Del Mar, Poway and northern San Diego communities and pumps it to Point Loma for treatment.
1. As sewage enters the pump station through a 48-inch pipe, rocks and debris are filtered out. 2. Sewage then collects in a 100,000-gallon "wet well." 3. One or more of the six pairs of 200-to-500 horsepower centrifugal pumps suck the sewage from the well and increase the pressure on the effluent to drive it up a 300-foot rise after it leaves the pump station. 4. Depending on the rate of the flow, up to five pairs of pumps may be engaged. One pair is held in reserve for emergencies. 5. The sewage is pumped out of the station at more than 150 pounds per squareinch of pressure into a 36-inch, concrete-lined steel pipe. 6. The pressure is sufficient to drive the sewage 13 miles to Metro Pump Station No. 2 near Lindbergh Field, which then pumps it to the Point Loma sewage treatment plant. What Officials Believe Went Wrong
1. There were three weather-related interruptions of power to the pump station between 9:30 and 10 a.m., causing the sewage to reverse its direction and flow downhill toward the pumps. 2. As the sewage backed up toward the pumps, "check" valves on the pumpsclosed to prevent the pump station from flooding. 3. The backed up sewage created enough pressure to crack the pipe before back-up power began moving sewage uphill again. 4. Sewage spewed up into a field about a quarter-mile from the pump station, spilling effluent into a parking lot on Roselle Street. 5. The pump station was shut down at 10 a.m., forcing 19.5 million gallons of raw sewage a day to flow into Los Penasquitos Lagoon.