Spill After Spill : Mission Bay’s Sewage Woes

Times Staff Writer

Ted Jardine has a recurring nightmare, one that would scare the dickens out of any savvy businessman trying to make an honest buck off Mission Bay. It goes something like this:

One morning, Jardine--owner and operator of the Mission Bay tourist information center since 1969--wakes up and troops off to work. As usual, the joggers whiz by, the sea gulls scavenge along the shore and cars packed with vacationers trickle into the parking lots.

But soon Jardine realizes something is amiss: The orange paper placards warning visitors that the bay is polluted by sewage have been replaced by something far more permanent--steel signs.


“It’s absolutely horrifying,” Jardine says of his dream. “The paper signs are just temporary, and they’re bad enough. But steel? Or porcelain even? That would be too much.”

Tragic Casualty

Temporary or permanent, the quarantine signs are proof that Mission Bay--the city’s premier aquatic playground--has become the most tragic and inexcusable casualty of San Diego’s sewage crisis, Jardine and others say.

In recent years, the bay has been plagued by a seemingly endless string of sewage spills, making it off-limits to both the residents who paid to create it and the tourists who flock here to swim in it.

Since 1980, health officials have quarantined all or part of the bay for more than 700 days--or 27% of the time. This year alone, portions of the bay have been closed five times because of sewage contamination. One area near a popular Crown Point bathing beach has been off-limits for more a than a year, and city officials confess they still can’t figure out where the guilty pollutants are coming from.

In 1980, the contamination was so bad that the prestigious San Diego Crew Classic--a nationally televised event that draws rowing teams from across the country--was canceled. And two years ago, the rowing event had to be moved to another area after yet another major spill polluted the normal race course.

Most spills are caused by breaks or blockages in sewer lines. But smack in the middle of the bay, atop Fiesta Island, are 30 shallow ponds where the city dries sludge--the smelly, black byproduct of sewage. In October, 2,000 gallons of the muck slopped into bay waters.


City Reprimanded

So alarming is the bay’s degradation that state water quality officials recently reprimanded the city for not being more aggressive and farsighted in its management of the deteriorating sewer system.

And Councilman Mike Gotch, whose coastal district includes the 4,600-acre aquatic park, calls the city’s problems with the bay an example of local government’s historic inability to keep its sewage under control.

“Over the years, there was always this general belief that since the sun was out and the water was blue, all was well with the bay,” Gotch said. “Now, I think everyone realizes that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”

That realization has some civic leaders fretting about the effect of sewage spills on the bay’s value as a drawing card for out-of-towners. Those who cater to the tourist trade say the canceled Crew Classic and other widely publicized sewer catastrophes have become a handicap in the competition to woo vacationers.

“Along with the zoo and Sea World, Mission Bay is one of our top three attractions, and there’s no doubt the sewage problem has had a detrimental effect on tourism,” said Jim Durbin, president of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Assn. “It’s hard to estimate the impact of it. But when the very facility people came here to use is closed down, you’re not scoring any points.”

Some hoteliers report that their guests--either miffed by their inability to enjoy the bay or offended by the thought of staying on the shore of a virtual cesspool--have demanded rebates. It’s a nagging, embarrassing problem.


“There’s the image question and also the fear that someone will go swimming, catch hepatitis and sue the hell out of you,” said Martin Blatt, the managing director of Vacation Village for 20 years until his 1982 retirement.

Antiquated System

State regulators blame much of the pollution problem on municipal foot-dragging in the maintenance and replacement of an antiquated network of pipes that snake through the beach communities. Recently, the Regional Water Quality Control Board took note of the troubles and issued a cease-and-desist order directing San Diego to meet deadlines for fixing up the system or face fines.

“If the city had replaced pipes and made other repairs before 1980, they could have prevented (pollution of the bay) due to sewage in 71% of the spills that have occurred over the past seven years,” said David Barker, a senior engineer with the board. “We’re particularly concerned about illegal discharges into the bay because of the high risk of public contact.”

Many of the concrete pipes were constructed 60 years ago and have become corroded by gases in raw sewage, a phenomenon that makes them more vulnerable to blockages by roots and grease. Some manholes near Mission Bay have been completely eaten away--right down to the dirt--by sewage, city officials say.

But the bay’s ills cannot be blamed solely on an unreliable sewer system. Indeed, some critics believe the waterway was fated from the start to suffer from a stubborn contamination problem because of its short-sighted engineering.

At the turn of the century, Mission Bay was more popular among birds than people. A vast mudflat strewn with tires, rusty refrigerators and other garbage, the area was then known as False Bay, reportedly because it was too shallow for boats.


In 1921, the Spreckels Co. took the first step toward transforming the marshland into a recreational area, developing Belmont Park. But it was not until 1945--when the state Legislature transferred title to the wetlands to the city--that the bay began to take its present shape. A $2-million bond issue was passed and an ambitious dredging project that would give the bay its unique array of coves, land bridges and islands got under way.

Ultimately, 15.4-million cubic yards of dirt were scooped out to create a configuration that has changed little in almost 30 years. By 1970, costs for the project totaled $75 million.

In designing the bay, engineers took what many believe was a fatal shortcut: Storm drains, which carry runoff from the bay’s 80-square-mile watershed, were constructed to pour directly into the waterway, through naked pipes lying across the beach.

Thirty years ago, such a system was not a problem; the population of the area was small, and the nasty ingredients in the runoff--like fertilizer draining off lawns and oil and gasoline from roadways--were easily diluted and swept off to sea.

But it’s a different world today, and the 78 storm drains from Clairemont, Soledad Mountain and other neighborhoods import a potent mixture that frequently strains the bay’s ability to cleanse itself. Moreover, when a sewer line breaks or a manhole collapses, the errant sewage runs through the streets and enters the bay through the storm drains.

“The basic flaw of Mission Bay is that everything in your local gutter--like dog stuff and anything else imaginable--flows right into the water,” said Mike Haas, an aide to Gotch who has worked on the bay’s problems for years. “When you get enough of that in there, you’ve got polluted water.”


The bay’s topography--shallow with narrow channels, land bridges and coves--makes tidal flushing less efficient, meaning the pollutants tend to linger.

Warnings Unheeded

In 1957, one scientist took note of the problem. Paul Horner warned in a report for the city that the storm drains would become a threat to water quality and recommended that the pipes be redesigned to empty on the floor of the bay. The same recommendation was made again in a 1975 study by state health and water quality officials.

Despite such warnings and the bay’s legacy of sewage spills, the pollution problem for years got little official attention. Meanwhile, businesses on the bay--which pay the city $8.8 million in lease fees each year--suffered.

Richard Gleason, owner of the Mission Bay Sports Center, which rents boats and other equipment and sponsors a summer aquatic camp for kids, said he has lost “thousands and thousands” of dollars over the years because of sewage.

“People read there’s a spill and they stay away--even if the water out in front of us is perfectly fine,” Gleason said. “They assume the water’s polluted forever. Mothers are very reluctant to let their kids swim if they suspect there’s contamination.”

After an April, 1985, sewage spill caused a lengthy quarantine, Gleason filed a $25,000 claim against the city and received a settlement of $10,000, according to the city’s Risk Management Office.


At Sea World, built on the bay to take advantage of the ready supply of saltwater, the pollution threat prompted officials to install costly filtration and disinfection systems, according to Jim Antrim, park vice president and general curator.

Critics say San Diego administrators just didn’t seem willing to confront the Mission Bay problem head-on, despite warnings that to wait would only make the situation harder and more costly to correct.

Gary Stephany, chief of environmental health for the county, speculated that the Water Utilities Department may have been “so preoccupied with keeping up with new growth, they just didn’t keep up with the routine maintenance and upgrading” needed to keep the system operating reliably.

Others say it was a matter of dollars and cents: The city just couldn’t justify spending the money and instead reacted to crises with short-term fixes.

Turning Point

“There was a very lethargic response,” Durbin recalled. “They felt the plumbing breaks were just something that happened, a fluke. A few times, they’d attribute it to excessive rainfall. Or vandalism. Finally it got to a point where the city and staff ran out of reasonable explanations.”

That turning point came in 1983, when a third report on the bay--prepared by a team of consultants hired by the city--confirmed findings of earlier studies and recommended ways to combat the contamination problem. Now, city officials have declared full-scale war on the bay’s nemeses.


Among projects completed, under way or planned at the bay are:

- A $1-million interceptor system, designed to prevent sewage and other contaminants from reaching the bay through storm drains. Constructed last year along the east bank, the system traps storm drain flow before it reaches the bay and pumps it to Point Loma for treatment. The city is considering expansion of the system to the north and west banks of the bay, at a cost of nearly $5 million.

- Replacement of 37 miles of concrete sewer pipes. The City Council has agreed to devote half of every dollar spent on sewer line replacement citywide to the Mission Bay area, where pipes are 60 years old. To date, 13 miles have been completed; the remaining pipes will be replaced by 1992, at a total cost of more than $22 million.

- Increased maintenance of sewer pipes to avert spills caused by blockages. To prevent grease and root obstructions, water utilities officials hope to add two new cleaning machines and two additional work crews at a cost of $322,000. A television inspection truck--which uses a camera pulled through pipes by a cable to spot cracks--was purchased last year for more than $100,000. The equipment repairs damages with a quick-drying epoxy resin.

- A program to protect manholes from vandals, who rip off covers and dump debris that can cause spill-inducing backups. Since 1986, more than 300 manholes around the bay have been strapped down with steel clamps, buried or plugged with concrete. Vandalism has caused 5 spills into the bay in the last six years.

- Relocation of the Fiesta Island sludge beds. Designed as a temporary sewage drying site in 1963, the operation has continued despite warnings from the state Coastal Commission that it was an inappropriate use of the park. Three spills since 1980--one allegedly caused after squirrels burrowed through a bed’s earthen wall, causing it to collapse--have quarantined parts of the bay.

A $29-million project to move the sludge beds to the Miramar Naval Air Station should be completed by 1990. Meanwhile, the sludge continues to pile up in a huge mound; Gotch and others have dubbed it “Mt. Campillo” after Water Utilities Director Armand Campillo.


- A bond issue of between $70 million and $90 million, proposed for the November ballot. Funds would go for improvements at Balboa Park and Mission Bay, where recommended projects include shoreline enhancement, expansion of the interceptor system and redesign of the storm drains so that they empty on the bay floor.

Jardine and other members of the Mission Bay Lessees--the group of businesses that leases bayside property from the city--say they are optimistic about the city’s new aggressiveness on the pollution problem. Cautiously optimistic.

“In fairness to the city, things have changed dramatically in the last year,” Jardine said. “I think people finally realize that in the latter part of the 20th Century, having this kind of a sewage crisis is a rather sobering black eye.

“But how far has this image of, ‘Gee, San Diego is a terrific city, but it just can’t handle its own sewage,’ spread? That’s the second half of my nightmare.”