Late Monday afternoon, Heal the Bay aquarium director Vicki Wawerchak alerted our water quality staff about a stream of potentially polluted runoff coming from a storm drain near Tower 15 at Will Rogers Beach in Pacific Palisades. The next morning, Heal the Bay scientists Alison Lipman, Kevin Jontz and Amanda Griesbach went to check out the spill, grab a few samples and take some photos. They came back convinced that the discharge was sewage because of the overwhelming odor. They immediately notified the County Public Health Department and the City of Los Angeles. The beach did not get closed.
Flash forward to Wednesday. The discharge was still flowing into Santa Monica Bay. Staff microbiologist Griesbach tabulated the results of the Tuesday samples of the discharge flows, the surfzone in front of the drain and 25 yards on either side of the discharge. Fecal bacteria densities in the discharge were overwhelming and too numerous to count (over 250,000 per 100 mls). Counts at the beach measured over 100 times above state standards. A subsequent sample collected Wednesday had over 25 MILLION fecal bacteria per 100 mls!
We summarized the results and sent an urgent email to high-level Los Angeles city and county employees in the respective health, lifeguard, and public works departments. As a result of the e-mail and our data, everyone sprung in to action quickly. Staffers sent crews to the beach within two hours of receiving our e-mail. After a day of sleuthing, the city found a broken sewer trunk line at 15054 Corona Del Mar on the Palisades above the beach. After days of sewage seeping into the sea, city crews prevented the wastewater from flowing. And they may have already finished repairs on the busted sewer line.
This unfortunate incident made me proud of how our staff responds to a pollution problem and takes action. I’m also grateful that the city of L.A. responded so quickly to the sewer line break and protected public health. On the other hand, the spill demonstrates that there is an ongoing sewer infrastructure problem in some of the geologically unstable parts of the Palisades. This issue must be addressed soon.
Once Heal the Bay provided data and notified a large array of influential bureaucrats, the departments responded quickly. But it shouldn’t take an urgent e-mail from me to department heads to get an immediate response on a suspected sewer spill. Also, the County should have closed the beach more than just 100 yards in each direction. Remember, pure raw sewage had been discharged directly to the ocean for days. It is always better to be cautious on beach closures in these circumstances, especially during the middle of a heat wave.
Bottom line: Our beach scientists were on it and their efforts made a difference. Once everyone got the information that showed that the discharge was sewage, all of the agencies did their jobs and they did them quickly. That’s how it is supposed to work when there is a spill. Spills happen.