Community Commentary: Time to raise a stink about ocean sewage

Anne Earhart's letter ("We can't ignore this global climate change," Sept. 30) adds another important voice to the relationship of ocean pollution, energy efficiency and global climate change.

Every day, each of us contributes to a sewage system serving 232,000 residents from Emerald Bay and Laguna Beach to the Dana Point Headlands, plus another half dozen inland cities. Annually, 3.9 million visitors add their contributions.

The Aliso Ocean Outfall, operating since Oct. 1 on an expired permit, discharges 15 mgd (million gallons per day) through an ocean diffuser only 1.2 miles off of Aliso Beach and the Montage Laguna Beach resort. An average of 1,300 pounds of total suspended solids (TSS) — use your imagination here — accompanies these discharges, according to in Santa Barbara.

Annually, this amounts to feeding 5 billion gallons of secondary sewage with known contaminates into a submerged "wastewater plume" of indeterminate size, shape or behavior. According to recent studies, the bioaccumulation of hormonal endocrine disrupters (among other sewage-borne viruses, pathogens and toxins) feminizes the reproductive traits of local marine life.

Adding to these flows are other cumulative discharges annually exceeding 240 million gallons of highly toxic aviation contaminates from the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro following 50 years of pollution into the huge central Orange County aquifer.

Cause for concern? You bet.

The solution to local ocean pollution is a sustainable water management program for all of Laguna. Water for Laguna comes primarily from the Colorado River via a 242-mile aqueduct through one of the hottest deserts on earth, thus losing significant amounts on its journey through evaporation.

The saltier Colorado-imported water is filtered of some salt then pumped up and down mountains to us. Many Laguna homes filter the water again as we brush our teeth, do the laundry, shower, use the toilet and send it all away down the sewer drain.

So where is "away"?

It's closer than you think.

For folks in Emerald Bay, Laguna Beach, north Dana Point and all of those inland cities, "away" is South Laguna, inland to the Coastal Treatment Plant at the Aliso Golf Course and then to the sea. Laguna's sewage is added to a deteriorating Effluent Transmission Main pipeline buried along the streambed of Aliso Creek. Nonetheless, the combined sewage with only secondary treatment is pumped to a depth of 170 feet.

Laguna remains the only "once through" water user surrounded by a vast, sophisticated network of citywide recycled water systems in Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Hills, among others. These cities irrigate miles of landscaped "greenbelts" by using recycled water. The recycled water significantly reduces ocean sewage discharges, shades the urban heat sink, filters automobile air pollution, mitigates climate change, creates wildlife habitat and reduces the need for more energy-intensive, imported water.

Laguna could take the lead in the race to a sustainable global green economy. Special funding grants and partnerships among community organizations, water districts and private sector water entrepreneurs are available.

Let's build a citywide system for Laguna to irrigate fire protection zones in the Laguna Greenbelt while also reducing the risk of wildfire damage to homes with an independent, hi-purity, "new water" system. A comprehensive, energy-independent emergency water system will be priceless during the next disaster and may even help reduce the fire insurance premiums of homeowners in this challenging economy.

The renewal of Aliso's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit affords us all an opportunity to promote less sewage discharges through more recycled water programs. Because this water can be useful in regional disasters and emergencies, recycled water standards would be equal to or exceed those for potable drinking water.

As Peter Douglas, the California Coastal Commission's executive officer, pointed out once to a Surfrider convention in Costa Mesa, "The two biggest threats to ocean pollution are ignorance and apathy."

Learn more about Laguna's water system. It may save your life.

And look into our sewage system … where does it really go? Why isn't it used for energy co-generation and recycled water? How can I lend my voice to help those working on sustainable solutions?

Let's not make a stink; let's make progress.

MICHAEL BEANAN is vice president of the South Laguna Civic Assn., a founding member of the OC Green Chamber and active with the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition.

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