Blackouts May Test the Sewer Districts


Regional water officials are warning sewer agencies throughout Southern California and elsewhere to prepare for rolling blackouts this summer, fearing that small cities that lack adequate backup power supplies could experience major sewage spills.

While some agencies are making special preparations--buying emergency generators and testing critical power systems--others insist their existing facilities can withstand the outages and pose no threat to public health and the region's waterways.

Critics are leery, however, saying the labyrinth of pump stations and underground pipes that move billions of gallons of sewage a day in Southern California is, in general, not well maintained and susceptible to mechanical failure.

"They're not prepared for the unexpected," said Wayne Baglin of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which enforces federal and state water laws in San Diego County and south Orange County. "Mechanical and electrical systems often come with surprises."

There have been no reported spills in the smattering of rolling blackouts earlier this year, according to regional water officials.

However, a massive blackout in 1996 caused a failure at the Hyperion treatment plant near LAX, causing 6 million gallons of partially treated sewage to flow into Santa Monica Bay. A 10-mile stretch of beach was closed.

The same outage caused a pump station failure in south Orange County, causing a spill that sent as much as 100,000 gallons of sewage into the Pacific Ocean off Doheny State Beach.

Even one planned outage caused a major spill. As part of a Y2K readiness test in 1999, the Los Angeles Sanitation Bureau shut off power to a Van Nuys treatment plant--causing 3 million gallons of sewage to spill into a nearby park.

The state's power grid operators have predicted that if California uses the same amount of electricity as it did last summer, residents face 34 days of rotating blackouts.

While critical operations such as hospitals and police agencies are exempt from outages, sewer systems are not.

While treatment plants run on electricity, the large ones in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties can produce enough power to be self-sufficient during crises, using methane and other biogases created during the treatment process. Some agencies also burn trash or use waste water to create hydroelectric power.

However, the problem may be in getting the sewage to the plants. Most sewer agencies take advantage of gravity to move sewage from homes and businesses to centralized treatment facilities. But in hilly areas, especially in coastal Orange County, cities rely on lift or pump stations to move the waste to higher ground. Each of these units is subject to rolling blackouts.

In Southern California, executive officers from regional water boards covering Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties either have sent out, or plan to send out by month's end, letters warning local agencies to prepare for blackouts.

"Sewage lift stations not equipped with functional emergency backup supplies, such as generators, may be extremely vulnerable to rolling blackouts," wrote Gerard Thibeault, executive officer of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over portions of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, in a June 15 letter to local sewer agencies.

Roger Briggs, executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, was more pointed in a June 11 letter to agencies in parts of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and other counties.

"An interruption of power that causes a [spill] will not likely shield a discharger from mandatory penalties," such as fines, he wrote.

Officials say the duration and geographic range of the blackouts will shape what happens this summer. Some agencies have begun preparing for the worst.

Huntington Beach, which has 27 lift stations, is now equipped to deal with a citywide blackout of up to several hours. The City Council voted Monday to spend $175,000 to buy six backup diesel-powered generators to add to the existing five generators.

"Plan for the worst and hope for the best," city spokesman Rich Barnard said.

Despite these measures, environmental activists remain skeptical.

Last year, there were 377 sewer spills in Orange County, 40 of which contaminated the county's coast and forced beach closures. This year, there have already been 25 beach closures caused by sewer spills.

"We've already got a system breaking down and falling apart now. Rolling blackouts are going to do nothing but make it more complicated," said Roger von Butow, chairman of the Clean Water Now! Coalition in Laguna Beach.

But other agencies, including Los Angeles and Orange counties, and the cities of San Diego, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, say they are well prepared.

The Orange County Sanitation District, which serves 2.2 million people in the central and north part of the county, can use methane to entirely power its facility during a power outage.

Lab work and some other activities may have to be delayed, but essential operations would continue, district spokeswoman Lisa Lawson said. Don Avila, spokesman for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, said its treatment facilities generate 117 megawatts of power, making it about the 20th largest power generator in the state.

During blackouts, the City of San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department will actually sell 8.8 megawatts of energy created by sewage treatment to the state power grid, spokesman Michael Scahill said.

The agency also hooked up all remote backup generators to a central facility; a March blackout showed that their system works.

Newport Beach officials also say their city is prepared.

"We're in pretty good shape. We could always be better," said Newport Beach city manager Dave Kiff.

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