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Heavy Rains Need Not Equal Disaster : Sewage Lines Should Be Secured for Stormy Weather

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Welcome rainfall in South County too often is followed by unwelcome sewage spills that close beaches and threaten wildlife. It is fair to ask whether environmental disaster needs to be the inevitable outcome of these seasonal heavy dousings. It should not be, of course.

Officials in the water districts that carry waste from inland development ought to take better steps to secure those vulnerable sewage lines from the predictable forces of nature. That is a far preferable, though no doubt costly, alternative to allowing a ruptured line to ruin natural assets.

But making the best of the effects of shifting earth and faulty pipes seems to be the best available annual strategy for coping with the sewage that comes in the aftermath of winter storms. The customary heroic response to fixing the broken pipes after the storms is quite admirable, but often is complicated by the difficulty of the task.

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Still the question--is this any way to run a sewage line? Instead of having to make costly and complicated fixes, it makes much more sense to secure the line better initially so that the ocean doesn’t become a sewer after the rains.

The danger to the environment is especially great after years of suburban growth put such heavy demands on the waste infrastructure in South County. It has raised the environmental stakes for all.

Obviously, the time to have secured the lines was when they were constructed. But closed beaches, rather than shocking public officials to action, increasingly seem to be regarded as part of the cost of having public works projects to serve residents of South County. That attitude should change.

After a recent storm, a five-mile stretch of beach from Dana Point to San Clemente was closed as 2 million gallons of raw sewage a day poured into the ocean from a ruptured sewer line along Oso Creek. A 2-million-gallon-a-day spill should be considered an unacceptable cost of a winter rainstorm. The Oso Creek spill occurred when a sewage line broke in a landslide caused by heavy rain. Can’t the line be better stabilized? Couldn’t it have been before? And what also of last year’s interminable closing of the popular Aliso Beach?

Fouled ocean water is not a mere inconvenience. Some custodians of the shoreline, like the Surfriders Foundation based in Huntington Beach, have tried to change the way people think about this problem. But consumer advocacy at ocean’s edge alone is not enough. Agencies charged with handling sewage must handle it better.

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