What are we surfing in? A look at stormwater infrastructure in La Jolla

The recent Surfer Health Study (Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, UC Berkeley, Soller Environmental and Surfrider Foundation, September 2016) found human fecal pollution in almost all stormwater discharges measured at the Tourmaline Surf Park storm drain in the 2014 and 2015 wet seasons — despite the presence of separate storm sewer and sanitary sewer systems in San Diego.

Tourmaline surf beach is home to a storm drain where stormwater collected in the 2.4 square miles watershed empties out into the ocean. The Surfer Health Study found a presence of the biological marker HF183, used to detect human fecal pollution in water environments, in the discharges of five out of six storms measured from Jan. 15, 2014 to March 31, 2015.

Surfrider senior scientist Rick Wilson, one of the authors of the study, told La Jolla Light they also detected human viruses in more than 80 percent of the samples. “That was sort of alarming ... I don’t know that it was necessarily expected for Tourmaline,” he said, adding that perhaps a sewer leak was a cause for the fecal indicators in the stormwater. “We are talking about a sewer system that has been here for decades, many decades. So the results indicate to me that the findings are probably due to one of three things: either you have a leak into the sewer line or you have a faulty connection (somebody’s sewer line from their house or their business is connected to a storm drain), or you have homeless populations living in the watershed.”

“Southern California simply does not possess the infrastructure to store and treat large volumes of stormwater runoff prior to its discharge at the beach.”

— The surfer Health Study

City Stormwater Division Deputy Director Andrew Kleis said there’s an ongoing investigation into the issue. “We not only want to be in compliance with stormwater regulation, we want the public to be protected, we want to find those sources, and program manager Ruth Kolb’s team has spent a lot of time studying what those are, and we are finding that the conclusions are not complete yet.”

Kolb’s team has been working on-site at the Tourmaline watershed. “What we’ve been doing is going out with biologists and the law enforcement team and starting at the watershed at the beach, taking different areas, breaking down into different groups so each branch is investigated,” she said.

The City believes the cause of the presence of human markers in the storm discharges at Tourmaline could be a bacteria buildup due to accumulated urban runoff. In a statement, Public Information Officer Anthony Santacroce writes, “Problems range from leaking dumpsters, leaking private laterals, RV dumping into the curbs and gutters, birds and other wildlife, transient populations, trash, and the wrack line. (A wrack line occurs when the full moon’s extreme high tide pushes kelp and other debris high on the beach, and then birds and flies pick through it and defecate.) Flies are a problem because they go to high bacteria areas (bird waste) and transfer the bacteria on their feet to other areas. Additionally, water waste that flows down the storm drain system during dry conditions can spur bacteria growth within the drains, contributing to increased levels of bacteria in the receiving waters.”

What are we swimming in? Experts weigh-in on beach water advisories »

Our binary sewer system

San Diego, as opposed to many cities in the East and Midwest, has separate sanitary and stormwater sewer lines. Waste water from residential and industrial use is pumped to treatment stations where it goes through a number of processes to clean it up before it goes into the ocean. Stormwater, however, runs untreated to the Pacific.

This binary system has pros and cons, but in scientist Wilson’s opinion, is mostly positive. “The combined sewers are good when the weather is dry (because all the water is treated), but it’s a horrible condition when you get rain, because with the combined sewer, there’s no way to handle the amount of flow,” he explained. “You get combined sewer overflows, and that is a major problem.”

With the separated system, runoff is conducted through creeks, rivers and the stormwater system to the ocean untreated. That’s why the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, in charge of measuring beach water quality, issues a general advisory for 72 hours after .2 inches of rainwater fallen within 24 hours. Land & Water Quality Division program coordinator Keith Kezer said, “Storm events are what impacts our water quality the most. Runoff is where contamination comes from. All the stuff that gets deposited, the oil, the spill, the metals ...”

But not only stormwater goes into the gutters. City inspector Kolb explained, “It’s critical for folks to understand that our stormwater system starts in your driveway, although the water may run down for 10 blocks before it goes down a drain.”

Kezer agreed. “People over fertilizing or using pesticides before it rains, or those washing cars on driveways help exacerbate the oil and grease and other contaminants. If you consider how many people live in the county, it doesn’t take much from each person to add up to something significant. The next big thing is to help people understand how their day-to-day activities impact water quality.”

Water-saving measures made permanent in California by Gov. Jerry Brown in May via Executive Order B-37-16, have been used by City officials to prevent unnecessary discharges into the stormwater system. The order prohibits: Hosing off sidewalks, driveways and other hardscapes; washing automobiles with hoses not equipped with a shut-off nozzle; watering lawns in a manner that causes runoff (or within 48 hours after measurable precipitation) and irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians.

City Code Enforcement officers visited Tourmaline beach at the beginning of October searching for possible sources of bacteria in the pipes and giving out written warnings to residents.

On the stormwater system, the Surfer Health Study concludes, “Southern California simply does not possess the infrastructure to store and treat large volumes of stormwater runoff prior to its discharge at the beach. It also is unclear if building this infrastructure — estimated to cost many billions of dollars — would be the most effective solution because state and federal beach water quality standards for health risk are based on scientific studies conducted exclusively during dry conditions in the summer.”

La Jolla stormwater infrastructure

Scientist Wilson said, “Most of La Jolla’s beaches are generally clean, compared to other areas. But I think the Surfer Health Study demonstrated that no matter where you are, don’t go surfing within 72 hours of rain, especially if the beach has storm drains, and even La Jolla Shores has one.”

Storm drains in La Jolla are located at WindanSea beach — south of Nicholson Point (Coast Boulevard and Prospect Street), between Fern Glen and Vista de la Playa and south of The Shack (Bonair Street, adjacent to a popular surf reef brake) — and in La Jolla Shores at the end of Avenida de la Playa.

La Jolla Shores is one of 34 Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS) along the California coastline, and as such has special regulations. The State Water Board’s resolution 2012-0012 prohibits water discharges on the ASBS. However, the same resolution created exemptions where the public interest is in allowing certain discharges essential for flood control, slope stability, erosion prevention, and maintenance of the natural hydrologic cycle.

The City oversees the La Jolla ASBS, and was granted an exemption to discharge stormwater onto La Jolla Shores under the circumstances listed above. However, the City has been working toward minimizing the impact of the discharges. The goal of the Avenida De La Playa Infrastructure Replacement Project & Sewer and Water Group Job 809 is to accomplish a low flow diversion and wet weather runoff mitigation.

Santacroce elaborated, “Water quality standards are normally met (at La Jolla Shores) with a few exceptions for bacteria, total suspended solids (dirt) and dissolved copper — automobile brake pads grinding down with use, part of the reason the City co-sponsored (legislation for) removing copper from brake pads.”

Other City programs to prevent urban runoff in The Shores include the Kellogg Park Green Lot Infiltration Project. Completed in 2011, the work replaced 18,000 square feet of asphalt concrete with pavement that captures surface water, and added a “vegetated bio-swale” and a filter bed to the parking lot.