Photo by Keith MayIf you think things were bad at the beach this summer, county officials have news for you. The Orange County Sanitation Districts (OCSD), which treats sewage for 21 Orange County agencies, may soon adopt an "ocean discharge plan" that that would pump more dirty water farther offshore.
"This is the largest volume sanitation district in the county," said Garry Brown of the environmental group Orange County CoastKeeper. "It's not like it's a little one. This is the granddaddy."
The OCSD plan "could result in 17 percent dirtier water," Brown said.
The sanitation district now pumps out a half-and-half mix of primary-treated water (floatables removed; chemicals added) and secondary-treated water (more chemicals; clearer water). It runs the sewage through a pipe five miles offshore and 200 feet deep. If the OCSD board adopts a new strategic plan, the breakdown would change to a nastier blend of 80 percent primary and 20 percent secondary.
Brown's group is investigating whether such a change would violate the districts' discharge permit with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Regional Water Quality Control Board. But district spokeswoman Michelle Tuchman said, "There is flexibility in our permit."
"We spend $2 million a year doing marine monitoring and ocean monitoring at the end of the pipe, where the treated sewage is discharged into the ocean, and we have no negative impacts," Tuchman said. "Our discharge pipe has become a reef. The fish are loving it out there. Now the whole area is thriving."
The Surfrider Foundation's Gordon LaBedz isn't buying what Tuchman is selling. He says public officials investigating the Huntington Beach closures have deliberately ignored such offshore dumping to focus on less politically potent problems—like the possibility that bird crap in the Talbert marsh caused this summer's bacteria scare.
"They are looking at easy spots," LaBedz said of the multiagency task force. "But I think it was a generalized pollution event from the decades of pumping sludge offshore.
"They've dumped millions of tons of sludge in the ocean off Huntington Beach for decades and decades and decades. Then they're shocked when they discover bacteria."
LaBedz suspects offshore sewage cycled back to the surf line through a natural phenomenon called "upwelling," which occurs when changing winds blow warm surface water away and colder water comes up from below to replace it. The colder water brings with it nutrients—and sewage—from the ocean's floor.
"All the shit they dump offshore comes up with that cold water," LaBedz said, "and it sometimes comes back to the beach. These sewage guys have been blaming urban runoff for a decade. And they're right: there is a huge problem with urban runoff. But I think the problems with Huntington Beach are more from upwelling and sludge from the bottom."
LaBedz also alleges the treated sludge that's being piped offshore is playing a part in the red tides that have become common along Huntington Beach. Government officials say red tides are a natural event, and they're right—a natural event that happens when runoff and sewage dumped into the ocean serve as fertilizer for algae.
"Some red-tide organisms produce toxins that are concentrated by filter-feeding animals such as clams, mussels, oysters and crustaceans and can cause illness or death in animals or humans eating the contaminated animals," warns Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences.
"Algae blooms are natural, but not to the extent we get them," LaBedz said. "There are more every year, and they are lasting longer. That's not natural. . . . I think that's why every August, they last weeks and weeks. The longer the beach is polluted, the longer the red tides last."
If the sanitation district loosens its discharge requirements, Huntington Beach residents may be seeing red for a long time.