Newport settles claim over sewage spills into bay and other local waters

Shorebirds dot the marshy Upper Newport Bay, a natural estuary designated as an ecological reserve and state marine conservation area. It is susceptible to sewage from spills.
(File Photo)

Newport Beach has agreed to replace sections of damaged sewer lines and improve its regulatory reporting to avoid a possible lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The offer came Wednesday in response to a claim filed in January by California River Watch, an environmental group that said 14 failures of Newport’s municipal sewer system between 2013 and 2018 sent a total of at least 6,400 gallons of raw sewage into Newport Bay, Buck Gully Creek, Semeniuk Slough and the open ocean.

The city will repair about 20 cracked and worn segments of sewer lines within 200 feet of surface water, issue additional public notice of spills, beef up its water sampling and reporting to the state and pay $50,000 in attorney fees, said City Attorney Aaron Harp.

A city statement called the spills minor but said it is settling to “see its limited fiscal resources spent making Newport Beach’s water quality even better.”

City Utilities Director Mark Vukojevic said the repairs will be spot fixes based on images from live video feeds from mobile remote-control cameras lowered into the pipes through manholes.

Those types of fixes generally would be addressed during routine maintenance, but the settlement agreement reprioritizes the patches closest to shore, Vukojevic said. The city typically sets aside about $500,000 per year for planned routine maintenance and an additional $150,000 for other repairs as they crop up.

Newport’s wastewater travels to Orange County Sanitation District reclamation and treatment plants in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. But sometimes — either because of root intrusion, grease clogs, construction debris and accidents or structural failures of the pipes — the effluent goes awry, bubbling to the surface and into gutters and storm drains that flow directly into local waterways.

Citing state records, California River Watch said 25 Newport sewer system failures from 2013 to 2018 combined to spill 17,755 gallons, though much of that was intercepted before hitting bodies of water. Fourteen of the spills reached water, according to the claim, considered a precursor to a possible lawsuit.

They included a siphon failure in February 2015 in Corona del Mar that dumped 1,500 gallons of sewage into the ocean and led the county health department to close Little Corona beach for five days.

In December 2015, root intrusion triggered a 2,000-gallon spill near City Hall, with 1,800 gallons entering a storm drain.

In February 2016, a structural failure of a force main pipe beneath 62nd Street sent 200 gallons into the saltwater marsh of Semeniuk Slough.

In its claim, River Watch suggested that recorded spill volumes were conservative because spills tend not to be reported immediately.

Vukojevic said the city has had only one incident this year — a 100-gallon spill in February in Newport Heights.

Though the state defines a sewage spill as “significant” at 1,000 gallons, any spill is too much, Vukojevic said.

“We don’t want any, we shouldn’t have any, but they do happen,” he said.

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