Historically high levels of contaminants, fish kill found during Saturday’s sampling point to serious environmental, human health concerns
SAN DIEGO, CA-Sept. 12, 2011- On Saturday, volunteers of San Diego Coastkeeper’s Water Quality Monitoring program discovered harmful impacts in the Los Penasquitos Lagoon following Thursday’s 1.9-million gallon sewage spill from the Roselle Street pumping station. In addition to Coastkeeper’s data showing high levels of fecal indicator bacteria, ammonia and phosphorous, volunteers noted grey-colored water, a strong sewage odor and a fish kill in the lagoon. According to Coastkeeper, all of the information gathered indicates the severity of environmental and human health repercussions from raw sewage entering into public waters and the growing importance of its volunteer-run monitoring efforts. Without Coastkeeper’s efforts, the effects would have remained unnoticed to regulators, leaving residents unaware. Actual data graphs and photographs are available on Coastkeeper’s blog.
Thursday’s loss of power for many parts of the Southwest caused three major sewage spills in the San Diego and Baja region. In addition to the North County incident, about 120,000 gallons spilled into the Sweetwater River from a pump station near Interstate 5 and state Route 54 and an even larger spill south of the Mexican border, where Baja California authorities reported a pump station lost power and sent 3.8 million gallons of sewage into the Tijuana River. These spills come nearly two weeks after a 250,000-gallon spill into the San Elijo Lagoon. Authorities reported loss of power as the reason for all four sewage spills.
In the September 9 San Diego Union-Tribune article about the recent spills, City of San Diego officials stated they run 84 sewage pump stations and have backup diesel generators “where it is financially and spatially feasible.” According to the article, “city officials assessed the possibility of putting on-site power at those sites a few years ago, but decided it was too costly and there wasn’t enough room for the machines.”
“City and state agencies are wagering human and environmental health against the odds of another emergency,” said San Diego Coastkeeper’s Executive Director Gale Filter. “They are gambling that some sewage pump stations aren’t worth the investment of a proper emergency backup—is one of these raw sewage pump stations in your neighborhood?”
The water quality samples collected by Coastkeeper volunteers show a trend of higher-than-normal concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria and nutrients and very low concentrations of oxygen dissolved in the water.
“Bacterial concentrations were at least 600 times higher than safe thresholds allow. It was higher than our test equipment can measure,” said San Diego Coastkeeper Lab Coordinator Travis Pritchard. “All data point towards sewage contamination—the reduced oxygen level suffocated fish and the high bacteria levels endangers human health.”
According to Saturday’s results:
• Bacterial concentrations exceeded the maximum level Coastkeeper’s test can detect at 241,920 E. coli/100ml. The maximum limit for healthy human contact is 406 E. coli/100ml.
• Nutrient concentrations, a strong indicator of sewage in water, showed the same pattern as bacteria. Ammonia concentrations exceeded 2 mg/L, far above the 0.025 mg/L maximum limit for healthy streams. Phosphorus concentrations exceeded 1.5 mg/L, above the 0.1 mg/L concentration limit for healthy streams.
• Dissolved oxygen concentration, perhaps the most important measurement for health of aquatic wildlife, was almost zero (0.08 mg/L), far below the 5.0 mg/L aquatic organisms need to survive. This resulted in the suffocation of fish in that section of the stream.
“Coastkeeper’s volunteers have monitored this site for more than two years now, giving us historical data for comparison,” said Pritchard. “Los Penasquitos is typically one of our top three most healthy watersheds in the county. This is the worst water quality we’ve ever seen here.”
San Diego Coastkeeper, the environmental watchdog for water issues in San Diego, already reported the fish kill to California Department of Fish & Game. Coastkeeper is currently evaluating its next steps to hold local and state agencies accountable for damage caused by the recent sewage spills and ensure they properly prepare the region for another emergency.
“Why would we need a cost and benefit analysis when human and environmental health are on the line?” said Filter. “To justify Thursday’s black out as a “once-in-a-generation” issue blindly ignores the Cardiff spill two weeks ago and downplays the risk of significant earthquakes and brownouts in our region that could easily cause similar sewage spills.”
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San Diego Coastkeeper
Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects the region’s bays, beaches, watersheds and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. We balance community outreach, education, and advocacy to promote stewardship of clean water and a healthy coastal ecosystem.