Rain Overwhelms Sewage System

Times Staff Writers

The series of powerful rainstorms sent millions of gallons of treated and untreated wastewater into Southern California waterways, overburdening sewage systems and polluting some beaches with more than 10 times the usual levels of bacteria.

Sewage spills prompted health officials to close several beaches in Long Beach and along a large swath of the Orange County shoreline from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach, around where Santa Ana River empties into the sea.

While other beaches remained open, authorities urged people to avoid the water until at least Friday because of high bacteria levels.


“The contamination is off the charts,” said Dr. Darryl M. Sexton, Long Beach’s health officer. “Have you seen the [Los Angeles] River? The runoff is all brown. It’s got animal waste from the storm drains let alone human waste coming from the sewer, so all of it creates a potential health problem.”

While rainstorms often foul the ocean, officials said the record rains over the last few weeks have been especially harmful. Debris littered beaches across the region, and the heavy rainwater overwhelmed sewage systems, causing massive leaks.

Justin Rudd, a Long Beach activist who leads monthly beach cleanups, returned Tuesday afternoon from a beach jog in Belmont Shore and said the shoreline was dotted by 8- to 12-foot-high piles of trash. Bamboo, shopping carts, balls and heaps of trash were tangled like towering haystacks as far as the eye could see.

“There is always trash on the beach from the L.A. River, and it needs cleaning up every day, but this will take weeks,” Rudd said Tuesday. “It’s a marked difference.”

But that’s the trash you can see. The water itself has also been polluted by sewage and urban runoff.

About 2.4 million gallons of raw sewage have spewed into the Los Angeles River since Sunday morning when a sewage system in Eagle Rock spilled over.


Barry Berggren, a division manager for the Los Angeles city Bureau of Sanitation, said he sent crews out immediately with trucks to intersections, including York Boulevard and Avenue 45, to vacuum up the sewage and dump it into another part of the system. Since Sunday, the 17 trucks have sucked up about 5 million gallons.

Berggren said the cleanup continues and his crews have posted signs along various streets warning residents to stay away. Citywide, more than 30 crews are working to remove sewage from overloaded pipes and truck it to other parts of the system. Some crews have been brought in from as far as Bakersfield.

Sexton, the Long Beach health officer, said he ordered beaches closed as soon as Los Angeles officials informed him Monday about the untreated sewage coursing toward his city’s harbor. Even before the sewage spill, he said, the rains had raised the level of some bacteria at city beaches to almost 20 times the state’s acceptable limit last week. He did not have up-to-date data Tuesday.

On Tuesday, raw sewage could be seen spilling onto the shoreline near the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Long Beach Convention Center, which was playing host to the popular annual State of the City luncheon. Sexton said it was much better to stay indoors during the event.

Los Angeles County health officials have posted warning signs on beaches from San Pedro to the Ventura County line since Dec. 28. More than 50 storm drains, creeks and rivers empty into the county’s beaches. Officials close beaches only if there is a sewage spill.

Eric Edwards, an environmental health specialist for the county, said test results from Monday show bacteria levels well above acceptable limits set by the state.


“It’s 10 times as high in some cases for enterococcus,” he said. “On some locations, the bacterial levels exceed the upper limit of the test.”

The deluge has also forced the county to create bypass systems to handle overflowing wastewater at treatment plants in Artesia and the City of Industry, said Ken Pellman, a spokesman for the county Public Works Department.

The department also made the rare move of opening the gates at its Malibu Mesa wastewater facility, releasing treated sewage into a stream in Marie Canyon, which flows into the ocean.

Pellman said his department tries to scoop as much of the trash off the runoff as it can, but he said much of it still makes its way down to the ocean.

One day last week, he said one of the booms stretched across the Los Angeles River in Long Beach collected 10 tons of trash.

Much of the sewage in Orange County flowed down the Santa Ana River from a ruptured pipe in Rubidoux that sent 4 million gallons of wastewater through Riverside and Orange counties. At least hundreds of thousands of gallons of cow waste have also spilled into the river from dairy farms in the Chino and Ontario areas, said Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.


Rescue workers have been so concerned about hepatitis and other pathogens in the water that they go through hazardous materials decontamination every time they conduct a swift-water rescue, said Riverside County Fire Chief Craig Anthony.

“We play lip service to clean water and trying to clean out watersheds,” said Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster at a storm damage briefing Tuesday. “But it seems like everything is thrown out the window when it rains.”

In Orange County, authorities were warning people to stay out of the ocean along the entire Orange County coast because of the polluted runoff from the recent storms.

Monica Mazur, supervising environmental health specialist for the county, said the beach areas closed included those from Magnolia Street in Huntington Beach south to 52nd Street in Newport Beach, the half mile around Salt Creek in Dana Point, the part of San Clemente Beach between Camino Capistrano Road and the pier, and part of Corona del Mar State Beach.

Mazur said that some beaches could continue to have high bacteria counts because of water being released from Prado Dam into the Santa Ana River and from San Juan Creek, which empties at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.


Times staff writers Seema Mehta, Jeff Gottlieb, David Reyes and Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.