Photo by Keith MayA new state report concludes that human waste from broken sewer lines has fouled South County's Aliso Creek.
The evidence? Statements by a Laguna Niguel city official.
Case closed? Hardly.
"The report doesn't have any evidence other than a couple of words I said," said Ken Montgomery, the city's public-works director who as recently as two months ago told residents he believed waste from animals—not people—is befouling the creek. "One they misunderstood, and the other they took way out of context."
The source of the confusion is buried in the report issued Jan. 27 by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board's San Diego region. According to the report, county and Laguna Niguel officials attending a July 14, 1999, meeting told water-board staff that human sewage from broken lines had entered a storm drain in Laguna Niguel's Kite Hill residential area and flushed into the creek. The report also notes officials revealed that Kite Hill has a history of broken sewer lines due to settling earth.
Written by Frank Thomas Melbourn, associate water-resource-control engineer with the San Diego region, the report was issued in connection with the board's order that the city, county and local Flood Control District clean up and abate bacteria pouring out of the storm drain that carries runoff water from Kite Hill into Aliso Creek and Sulphur Creek near Laguna Niguel Regional Park.
"There is strong evidence that human fecal material is reaching Sulphur Creek via Storm Drain Outfall J03P02 due to infiltration from a leaking sanitary sewer line," the report concludes.
"Unfuckingbelievable," said Roger von Butow, leader of the Clean Water Now! Coalition of South County activists and residents fighting to clean up Aliso Creek and South Laguna's Aliso Beach. "The smoking gun is there. It's in the staff report. These assholes have known since July last year. I hope they all wind up in jail."
But Montgomery insists the state report is flawed. During the initial investigation into the source of the high bacteria, the city videotaped inside its storm drains. In one section, the city found leaking joints.
"We mentioned to the state staff the drains were taking in a lot of water," Montgomery recalled. "They misinterpreted that to mean that a sewer line was leaking and sewage was somehow getting into the storm drain—thus the cause is human. They misunderstood that. There was no leaking sewer. Moulton-Niguel Water District subsequently videotaped all their sewer lines and found a couple of minor problems but none that were leaking sewage into the groundwater."
Former Laguna Beach City Councilman Wayne Baglin, chairman of the San Diego region's board, had personally tested water coming out of the J03P02 pipe last year and discovered amounts of fecal coliform 150 times greater than state law allows. The report was drafted after the board's staff investigated county water-quality records and confirmed that previous discharges from the pipe exceeded state health standards. Ten out of 12 water samples the county took from September 1998 through December 1998 exceeded state standards for fecal coliform in recreational areas such as Aliso and Sulphur creeks.
The county uses the fecal-coliform indicator to determine whether a waterway is polluted. People who ingest water fouled by bacteria and viruses in human feces could suffer sickness and potentially life-threatening diseases.
But, inexplicably, the county did not test specifically for fecal coliform when five more samples were taken from the same pipe in June 1999.
The state water board staff learned from those samples that total coliform had increased in comparison to samples taken in 1998. Elevated levels of enterococcus and E. coli bacteria detected in the latter samples "indicate fecal contamination and water pollution," according to their report.
Unless the residents of Laguna Niguel have taken to defecating on their neat streets and trim lawns, it's reasonable to assume what state officials do: bacteria from city sewer lines leaked into storm drains, and from there made its way into Aliso Creek and the Pacific Ocean.
Montgomery has a different hypothesis.
"It's from birds and yards, and there's a helluva lot of wild animals in that area, too," Montgomery said. "All that fecal matter eventually washes into the storm-drain system. We've even found evidence of animals living in the storm-drain system. It's a good place for them to get away from predators."
If broken sewer lines were behind the crap entering the creek, Kite Hill residents would be reporting widespread problems with their sewer systems, he said. "All of our tests indicate this bacteria is widespread, throughout the entire area and not one hot spot where you can trace the source down," Montgomery said.
State officials say they didn't rely exclusively on Montgomery's comments. The regional board's staff also learned that Kite Hill residents have filed lawsuits over cracked concrete slabs, which could indicate fractured underground-sewage pipes.
"The residential area is approximately 20 years old and has a history of differential settlement problems," the report states. "Differential settlement can compromise the integrity of sanitary sewer lines and cause sewage to infiltrate the storm-water conveyance system."
But broken slabs do not necessarily translate into broken sewer pipes, Montgomery said. "Pipes are often flexible enough that if the ground moves, they'll move with it. I was the public-works director in Redondo Beach in the late '80s and early '90s. We found that the entire harbor sunk three feet and the pipes were still functioning. It was the weirdest thing. There were all kinds of lines in the street, including sewer lines, and nothing had broken."
Montgomery has informed the regional board's staff that they misinterpreted his July 1999 statements. He'll get a chance to state his case at the board's Wednesday meeting, where the city and county have requested a public hearing to contest the board's determination that discharges of human waste contributed to Aliso Creek pollution.
Melbourn said he stands by his report until he's shown evidence that proves otherwise. "I know what I remember," he said.
He added that before the board issued its cleanup order, the dischargers had already begun taking care of the problem. The state went ahead and took action to get the matter on the record and give the locals a deadline to act.
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Melbourn sympathized with local officials' sentiments that they are being made out to be bad guys at a time they are addressing the water-quality problems —a point Montgomery underscored.
"It's hard to believe they would take a position on something they thought they heard last July," the public-works director said, "instead of just calling me first."
All of this will be moot if Aliso Creek is cleaned up and the pollution stops, Melbourn noted.
"I don't see this as shocking and controversial as they do," he said. "Let the data speak for itself."