Sewage leak causes 3-day WindanSea Beach closure

An estimated 1,350 gallons of sewage spilled from the Fern Glen Pump Station on Thursday, April 20, causing San Diego County health officials to close the north side of WindanSea Beach (from Nautilus Street to Marine Street) from the afternoons of April 20 to April 23.

The cause of the leak, according to City of San Diego public information officer Alma Rife, was a deteriorated “rubber gasket” on the pump station’s piping. “Crews replaced the rubber gasket also known as a connection fitting,” she explained.

The Fern Glen station pumps sewage from the surrounding area. As the City’s website reads, “Most of the wastewater collection in San Diego relies on gravity for the flow of wastewater through sewers to a treatment plant. In some instances, it is necessary to pump this wastewater uphill before it can return to a gravity flow.” Rife added that at the Fern Glen station “sewage is passed from the collection main from the surrounding uphill residential areas between Bonair Street to the South, Marine Street to the North, and Draper Street to the East.”

The station has an operating volume of 800 gallons, and in case of total failure, it can store up to 37,700 gallons of sewage. “The station did not experience total failure in this case,” Rife clarified.

Isaac Jenkins, a member of the City’s Public Utilities Department, told La Jolla Light the alarms went off early morning April 20 at the 102 Fern Glen Pump Station. “We responded to a call at 6 a.m., and we were there by 8 a.m., when we stopped the leak. We started to post signs, and the last one was posted by 10 a.m.,” he said.

The next step was for San Diego County health officials in charge of monitoring beach water quality to come to the site and collect water samples and post more beach closure signs. The official beach closure was posted on the County’s website (sdbeachinfo.com) at 1 p.m. April 20.

Several signs posted by City and County agents at various locations around the leak site read, “Danger, contaminated water, keep out.” Keith Kezer, program coordinator of the Land & Water Quality division of the San Diego County Environmental Health Department told the Light three samples from the vicinity of the leak were analyzed. The sample from April 20 was “just above health standards,” he said.

Another sample, taken April 21, showed acceptable levels of bacteria, but it was taken at low tide, when the ocean wasn’t reaching the contaminated area. “The approach we took here is similar to the other ones; we don’t just look at the sample and run with it, we want to make sure that we have a sample that’s representative of the conditions that could cause contamination,” Kezer explained. He said a third sample collected April 22 came out “clean,” and that prompted the lifting of the beach closure.

La Jolla resident JD Neri said she was at WindanSea beach April 20 (the day of the leak) when she noticed something was wrong with the water. “The water looked really dirty and there was a film around the waves, so it didn’t look that inviting,” she explained.

On April 21, Neri went back to the beach, and this time she said she was “hanging out” really close to the pump station. “I didn’t go in (the water) that day, but a couple of my friends did, and they said the day after, they were feeling kind of sick, but nothing too serious.”

For Neri, “Thursday was the worst day, and then Friday and Saturday, you could still kind of see the brown zone.”

The designated area for the closure extended 2,000 feet from Nautilus Street to Marine Street. Kezer said that was a “good, cautious” area to be secured. The most popular surfing reef (off The Shack and Bonair Street), roughly 300 hundred feet south of Nautilus Street and 0.3 miles south of the Fern Glen sewer pump, remained open.

For Jim Neri, local surfer and JD’s father, the extent of the beach closure raised some doubts. He said some of his friends went in the water that weekend, not knowing about the sewage leak. “There was a northwest swell, with a combination of southwest swell, that means the water was being pushed to the south,” he said. “So once the pollution got out of the pump station (it was going south toward the reef), but there was enough wave energy that it should have been diluted fairly rapidly.”

Kezer added that beach closure signs were being removed, presumably by people. “We were doing two trips a day putting signs back up,” he stated.

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