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Rains overwhelmed many of the region's sewage systems, fouling O.C. and San Diego beaches

December 27, 2010 |  5:22 pm

Last week’s series of rainstorms offered stark illustrations of the destructive power of a strong downpour: homes besieged by mud, flooded roadways, beaches littered with washed-up garbage.

But a less visible blight also took a toll on the Southern California coastline.

As dirty storm runoff rushed seaward during the rains, it overwhelmed some of the region’s sewage systems, rupturing sewer mains, disabling pump stations and overflowing manhole covers in a series of sewage spills that swept hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste into the ocean.

Five days after the heaviest rainfall, several beaches, including three in southern Orange County and two in San Diego County, remained closed to protect the public from sewage, pathogens and other pollutants that continue to swirl in the water even after the storm clouds have dissipated.

“With this volume of water, a lot of things that have been sitting for a long time all got washed down,” said Garry Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Coastkeeper. “There are viruses, toxic metals, trash and debris polluting the coast, and it’s the things you can't see that are more detrimental to human health.”

When mud and debris streamed through the streets of downtown Laguna Beach early Wednesday during heavy rain, more than 60,000 gallons of sewage washed toward the ocean.

Some of the waste came from broken pipes on private property or sewer covers overflowing with storm water. But the highest volume spilled from the actual sewer infrastructure.

A pump station ruptured near Laguna’s popular Main Beach and sent 47,000 gallons of sewage seaward, while a second station on the outskirts of the city broke and spilled 6,000 gallons of sewage into Aliso Creek.

In both cases, the rain caused the volume of material flowing through sewage pipes to double, overwhelming the system. In nearby San Juan Capistrano. runoff-swollen Trabuco Creek damaged a 30-inch main, causing 50,000 gallons of partially treated sewage to spill.


AT&T reports 'pockets' of service outages in wake of storms

Highland braces for more rain and the potential for more mudslides

Saturated hillsides could produce slides -- even after rainstorms end

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Debris sits scattered on the sand below Heisler Park in Laguna Beach. A sign posted at Heisler Park urged swimmers to keep out of the contaminated waters. Credit: Christina House / For The Times