Major sewage spill could keep O.C. beaches closed through the weekend

One of the largest sewage spills along the Southern California coastline in years has forced the closure of three miles of popular beaches and surf breaks in south Orange County.

An underground sewage main in Rancho Santa Margarita ruptured Tuesday afternoon, sending an estimated 500,000 gallons of raw sewage gushing into a creek that empties into the ocean at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, officials said Thursday.

Beaches from the breakwater at Dana Point Harbor to Capistrano Bay Community Beach could remain closed through the weekend, or until water quality test- ing meets state standards for two straight days, Orange County health officials said.

The shoreline, which includes a state campground and sheltered beaches favored by families with young children, has a long history of bacterial pollution problems, with some stretches routinely receiving “Fs” in the nonprofit Heal the Bay’s annual report card on the health of state beaches.

“It’s a big spill,” said Larry Honeybourne, program manager for the O.C. Health Care Agency, adding that the break ruptured “a very large pipeline in a difficult location, right under a creek bed.”

Crews were dispatched just after 4 p.m. Tuesday when an alarm indicated that a 24-inch sewage main that runs under Tijeras Creek in Rancho Santa Margarita had broken, said Santa Margarita Water District spokeswoman Michele Miller.

Since then, workers have been toiling around the clock to truck out sewage and build a berm downstream to contain the spill. By Thursday afternoon, crews had found the source of the spill and hoped to replace a cracked section of pipe by Friday morning, Miller said.

Spills that have closed beaches in recent years throughout Southern California have typically involved the discharge of amounts from 1,000 to 10,000 gallons.

But the roughly 500,000 gallons of effluent discharged this week -- which would fill about 10,000 bathtubs -- rivals some of the worst incidents in recent memory.

The last spill of this size was recorded in October 2008 in Laguna Beach, when 591,000 gallons spewed onto Pacific Coast Highway, running into the ocean and closing four miles of beaches.

In January 2006, 2 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from a Manhattan Beach pumping plant after an apparent power failure. Officials launched a massive cleanup after an estimated hundreds of thousands of gallons flowed onto the sand and into the ocean.

This week’s closure is also the latest taint on a stretch of coast that doesn’t boast pristine waters to begin with.

The contamination problems at Doheny State Beach have been blamed in part on its location at the outlet of San Juan Creek, which drains a 130-square-mile watershed extending across southern Orange County to the Santa Ana Mountains.

For much of the last decade, the beach has been listed among the top 10 filthiest in the state.

For more information, visit or call Orange County’s beach closure hotline at .