Sick of Sewage in San Diego

More than a decade ago, San Diego County was home to daily sewage spills, earning the region a dubious distinction in media. That is, until San Diego Coastkeeper stepped into the scene.


Coastkeeper uses policy and legal action to reduce sewage spills and eliminate inadequate sewage treatment in San Diego. San Diego Coastkeeper has a long history of fighting to improve sewage treatment and collection systems throughout San Diego County.

In fact, we’ve already reduced sewage spills in the City of San Diego by 90 percent since 2001 and beach advisories in San Diego County by 77 percent. Read more to learn why we work on this important issue:

Science of Sewage
History of Sewage 
Camp Pendleton’s Struggle with Sewage
2011 Power Outage Sewage Spill
Sewage as a Water Source
What You Can Do

The Science of Sewage

sewagelandingpage-yThe fundamental problem with sewage in San Diego County is twofold: we have old and easily clogged or damaged infrastructure, and we have insufficient sewage treatment. In the City of San Diego, we have nearly 3,000 miles of underground sewer pipes collecting all of the waste generated by residents and businesses. Eventually these pipes move wastewater to the Point Loma Treatment Plant, which treats and discharges into the ocean 150 million gallons of wastewater a day.

Chronic sewage spills happen because San Diego’s antiquated system literally bursts at the seams with the onset of rainwater volume. These spills from the pipes or treatment plant lead to raw or partially treated sewage discharged directly into our creeks, lagoons or coastal areas. Sewage spills and improper treatment at sewage treatment facilities can release harmful bacteria, viruses and other pathogens into the water, making it unsafe to swim and killing wildlife.

When sewage spills into San Diego’s water, it contains a mixture of substances, such as nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), pathogens (bacteria and viruses) and a suite of chemicals. Sewage spills carry a variety of pathogens (microbes that make us ill) that puts the health of swimmers, surfers and other people coming into contact with the water at greater risk of illness, like gastroenteritis, and ear, eye, nose and throat infections.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are important elements for plants and animals to thrive. However, when concentrations in water get too high, it results in excessive growth of photosynthetic organisms. This disrupts the amount of oxygen in the water available to aquatic animals. In some cases, it leads to large amounts of dead fish. Some forms of nitrogen and phosphorus are toxic to animals.


2000 Lawsuit Against City of San Diego

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the City of San Diego had a serious sewage problem. The sewage collection system (the pipes that collect sewage from homes and businesses and transport it to the treatment plant) was so old and broken that San Diego was suffered a sewage spill every day. San Diego Coastkeeper sued the City of San Diego under the Clean Water Act to force the City to make critical investments in infrastructure to reduce sewage spills. The City and Coastkeeper agreed to a settlement requiring the City to spend more than $1 billion in improving its sewage collection system through 2013. The City also agreed to continue its increased pipeline rehabilitation and replacement of 250 miles of pipeline, implement a comprehensive sewer pipeline cleaning program and to reduce sewer spills caused by cooking oil and grease.

Camp Pendleton

Over the past decade, we’ve worked with the military to ensure it respects our ocean. As a result of strategic lawsuits from Coastkeeper and the cooperation of the military, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in the sewage treatment and collection systems at Camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton has agreed to meet stringent targets to reduce sewage spills over the next five years and to immediately inform Coastkeeper of any spill that might reach a beach or waterway where people recreate. We look forward to continuing to build a positive, collaborative relationship with the military to reduce threats to our water quality and protect the people who live and work on military property.

2011 Power Outage Spill Response

DeadFish LPQ SewageSpillIn September 2011, a widespread power outage across San Diego led to several massive sewage spills in the City of San Diego. These spills occurred because not all the pump stations transferring the sewage through the city’s pipes had backup power. Two days after the power outage, San Diego Coastkeeper water quality monitoring volunteers discovered dead fish and sewage pooled in Los Penasquitos lagoon. We immediately notified the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the City of San Diego and California Department of Fish & Wildlife.

We collected samples, wrote a blog series and updated media to keep the public informed of the spill and its implications.

In addition to tracking the water quality impacts of the spill, Coastkeeper took action to ensure this would never happen again. We testified at a hearing about the spill that the City should have had backup generation to every pump station to avoid the spills. In response, San Diego City council voted to purchase backup generation for all pump stations in San Diego. We also advocated to the Regional Water Quality Control Board that the City of San Diego should pay a stiff penalty for the Los Penasquitos spill and its spill into the Sweetwater River on the same day.

You can say no to sewage, too.

San Diegans contribute too. We flush more than bodily wastes down the drain. Cosmetics and hair products wash off us. Our bodies only partially absorb medications that we consume. These pharmaceuticals and personal care products flow through our drains to our sewer pipes. Our current wastewater technology does not remove these substances, and they discharge into our coastal waters. A recent study conducted by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project found that seawater and sediment in the vicinity of and effluent from the Point Loma treatment plant (and three others in Southern California) had measurable levels of common pharmaceuticals like ibuprofen, naproxen and gemfibrozil (lipid-controlling medication) among others. Fish living in the vicinity of the plant also had measurable levels of a wide range of pharmaceuticals and personal care products like laundry detergent, antibiotics, sun block and flame retardants.

  • Don’t put fats, oils or grease down the drain. These substances are a major cause of sewer pipe blockages that lead to spills. Instead, put them in the garbage and follow city or county regulations.
  • If you own a home, have your lateral line inspected. Damaged lateral lines are also a major contributor of spills in the collection system.
  • Support your local agencies’ efforts to upgrade your wastewater infrastructure.
  • Donate to Coastkeeper to fund our fight to stop sewage spills.