Ben Robinson, surfboard tucked under his right arm, stood atop the Oak Street observation deck Wednesday morning and stared forlornly at a set of unridden waves that crashed noisily on the Laguna Beach shore.
It was a perfect day to go surfing at his "home beach," Robinson said, until he noticed the all-too-familiar red and white signs that warned swimmers and surfers that the beach was contaminated.
"I guess the water's still rude," Robinson sighed as he listened to a lifeguard explain to a small crowd of disappointed beach-goers that a stretch of beach between Brooks and Thalia streets was closed until the end of the week because of a small sewage spill which had been discovered Tuesday morning.
In fact, the ocean water off Laguna Beach has been "rude" with raw sewage twice as often in the past three years than in the previous six years, city records show.
And that has caused city officials to launch an ambitious study to upgrade the aging sewer system and stop the periodic drainage of raw, smelly sewage into the surf.
Sewage spills have closed the beaches seven times since July, 1988, and have made some tourists uneasy about coming to the popular beach resort, city and local merchant association officials said.
"Of course, tourists don't want to come to Laguna Beach to wallow in sewage," said Cheryl Ryan, managing director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce. "(The spills) have caused some concern."
Because of power outages, pipe ruptures and assorted equipment failures, thousands of gallons of raw sewage have inadvertently drained into the ocean this year alone, city officials said.
The latest spill was discovered Tuesday morning when sewage dripped down the cliff near Brooks Street overnight and drained into the ocean.
County health officials estimated that 500 gallons of sewage from eight beachfront homes were released into the surf, city lifeguards said. The beach should reopen by the weekend, they said.
The City Council last month ordered city staff to study ways to prevent the spills. Among the solutions which City Manager Kenneth C. Frank will recommend next month is an early-warning system, which would alert officials to an impending spill from any one of the city's 23 pump stations.
The concrete-enclosed stations pump raw sewage from the beachfront homes up a steep slope to the main sewer system under Coast Highway, City Engineer Ross Cox said. But the archaic design of the pumps, some of which are 40 years old, makes the stations particularly sensitive to overflow.
When a pump freezes or when a power outage occurs, the raw sewage which collects in wells at the stations overflows and makes its way into the surf, Cox said.
Since July, 1987, about 15 spills have occurred in the city, including a 900,000-gallon sewage spill at Aliso Beach in June and a 12,000-gallon spill in July.
The Aliso spill--the fourth in that area in six months--occurred because of a broken sewer pipe, which is under the control of the South Coast Water District. The beach was closed almost a week. None of the Aliso Beach spills, which began in January, were from city-controlled pump stations.
Frank and other city officials are aware of the high costs of renovating the pump stations.
"How much money do you want to spend?" Frank asked rhetorically. He said the most obvious--and most costly--solution to the ongoing problem would be to install permanent back-up generators to each pump station, since most of the spills have occurred after power outages.
But, he said, that would cost more than $1 million and would be "environmentally insensitive to the beach area" because sheds the size of small rooms would have to be built on the hillsides over the new equipment. "That would not be viable," he said.
Frank said city engineers have settled on installing the early warning system, which would tell police dispatchers when sewage in the wells was reaching dangerously high levels.
One portable generator is on order and should be delivered soon, Frank said.
But, he admitted, "nothing is going to make the system foolproof. We're never going to have a 100% reliable backup system."
In the meantime, some frustrated beach-goers said, they will have to hold their breath when spills occur and remain high and dry until the contamination dissipates.
"It gets really rank out there," Robinson said. "You can smell that stuff when you're waiting for a wave."
Lifeguard Danie Miller, who spent Wednesday sticking warning signs into the sand, said that many locals are growing increasingly frustrated over the spills.
She said that when she reported to work, she caught the unmistakable whiff of spilled sewage. City and county health officials were already on the scene taking samples of the water, Miller said.