by Jason Everitt / Two Cathedrals / Originally Published on Oct 7, 2011
Here’s what we know…
Early reports indicated that the regional power outage caused roughly 2 million gallons of sewage to be released into the ocean via the Los Penasquitos Lagoon and Sweetwater River, which closed 10 miles of San Diego County beaches. The Los Penasquitos spill emptied into Torrey Pines State Beach, while the Sweetwater River spill emptied into San Diego Bay. South of the border, a Mexican pump station was estimated to have released an additional 3.8 million gallons of sewage into the Tijuana River. By the time San Diego officials actually got their arms around the full weight of the damages of the regional power outage, our local sewage spill was estimated at north of 3.5 million gallons.
San Diego Coastkeeper measured the bacterial concentration in the lagoon near Torrey Pines and found that they exceed the maximum level their tests could detect, surpassing 600 times the limit for healthy human contact. Ammonia concentrations were 80 times the maximum limit. Phosphorous concentrations were 15 times the maximum limit. The dissolved oxygen rate, a measure of the oxygen saturation in our ocean, was 0.8 mg/L. Aquatic organisms typically need at least 5.0 mg/L to survive. As a result, the fish living in our rivers and lagoons suffocated and died. Coastkeeper Lab Coordinator Travis Pritchard described the water quality as the worst they had ever seen in the measured areas.
The economic impact of beach closures will probably get lost in the net impact of every restaurant and store in the County of San Diego being closed, but they are nonetheless significant. Beaches in San Diego were closed through the weekend and, in some areas, into the following week before water quality met environmental standards for safe usage. Tourism is a billion dollar economic cluster for our regional economy and the environmental quality of our beaches and bays is the backbone of that economic cluster.
Already, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board has asked for the documentation necessary to take action against the City of San Diego for violation of California Water Code.
Here’s what we don’t know…
Given the monumental economic impact and widespread environmental destruction cause by the blackout, how did we let this happen? The first part of the answer is easy enough. City pump stations rely exclusively on SDG&E for backup power. Pump stations have no backup electricity and have no capacity to hold additional sewage until power returns. Backup power was also based on redundant dependencies between pumping stations and SDG&E power stations. This issue will likely be addressed in after-action studies conducted by the City of San Diego.
The fact that we weren’t even able to determine how large the problem actually was is distressing. City of San Diego Deputy Director of Public Utilities was quoted as saying that initial estimated were based on a visual, subjective assessment of the size of the spill. While I’m (almost) certain that no serious policymaking decisions were based on the guesswork of a city employee (rather than actual data from the pump station), the public relies on information from our city departments to understand and appreciate risk. In this case, risk was shorted by 75%.
Here’s what we should know…
When we piecemeal out the provision and protection of public goods to multiple layers of governmental and private enterprise, we must ensure that we have adequate safeguards in place. Pushing as many services out of the doors of City Hall does not end our city’s responsibility to protect our beaches and bays. It also doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make our elected officials less accountable, even when the principle organization responsible for the disaster is a company and not a city department. Privatization cannot be an abdication of responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s much more comfortable to cast these things off as freak occurrences than to believe that they are failures of a system we have built. We should know better.