“Once an industry dumps, if you don’t detect it immediately, you’re out of luck."
Since the early ’60s, the city’s accumulated soap suds, feces and chemicals have been passed with millions of gallons of water daily (mgd) into great concrete receptacles just below the new lighthouse, where the muck receives a modest amount of treatment before it is pumped two miles out to sea at a depth of 200 feet.
Constantly under scrutiny by the city and the state water quality control board, the San Diego system remarkably has not been found to wreak environmental havoc. In fact, some experts would swear that pouring tons of waste into the ocean has proved beneficial to the affected ecosystem.
Unlike the constipated residents of Eastern Seaboard communities who live in constant fear of a sludge monster arising from the depths, San Diegans can be relatively free from such anxieties thanks to a steep topography and a helpful hand from Mother Nature.
Because the sewage outfall is so far below the surface, the waste water is much warmer than the ambient ocean. The warmer effluent tends to rise, resulting in an extensive dispersal of any materials harmful in concentration, such as heavy metals or pathogenic organisms.
Before being plopped into the Pacific, raw sewage, both domestic and industrial, Is subjected to what is known as primary treatment. This involves removing at least half the solids by settling them out and by scooping up the scum from the surface. The captured solids are then shunted to the “digesters,” air-tight tanks which in a period of a month can decompose over 120,000 gallons with the aid of microorganisms thriving in the oxygenless environment. Once digested, the sludge is pumped to Fiesta Island in Mission Bay where it is dried, later to be used for fertilizer.
Twice a week the surface scum, comprising grease, soap suds and anything else that won’t sink to the bottom, is picked up by a Los Angeles firm and shipped to Japan, where it is an essential in the manufacture of perfume.
One would expect the odor in the area of the plant to be suffocating in intensity. Actually, when we visited the facility our nostrils were not badly ravaged. Our tour guide explained that the offensive hydrogen sulfide gas, which is the byproduct of anaerobic decomposition (also the smelly agent in flatulence), was burned off in special incinerators.
The guide warned us that hydrogen sulfide was nothing to snort at. If the gas concentration ever reaches 10 parts per million, the olfactory membrane becomes insensitive to it, and shortly thereafter paralysis of the respiratory system occurs, resulting in a tragic finish within five minutes. Needless to say, for the remainder of this tour we did not breathe too deeply.
Another byproduct of decomposition, methane gas, is recycled into the system in the form of heat necessary to maintain the digesters.
The effluent is now ready for the ocean. Although the plant has a capacity to process only 80 mgd, it is receiving over 110. At the moment, additions are being completed to extend the capacity to 120 mgd and eventually to 240 by the turn of the century. In the meantime, treatment time has been reduced to compensate for the overloaded system.
We walked down to where the treated effluent was shot into the outfall pipe. It was mildly terrorizing to stare into this powerful whirlpool of barely processed urine.
I pointed out to our guide the scum washing up against the cliffs directly beneath us. He claimed that it was an extraordinary condition resulting from the surplus raw sewage. Explaining further, he said, “Until they get around to the point of insisting on biodegradable products, we’re going to continue to foul the environment.”
You’d be surprised at what people consider waste products. According to operators of the Point Loma plant, anything that fits through a manhole will do. Hot water heaters, bed springs, 2 by 4s, bus tires, and dogs all have been discovered in the system. Once a baby was found on the grating. A worker ordered to pick the infant off said he would rather be fired than follow such an abhorrent procedure. He was fired.
Municipal sewage treatment is a relatively new concept. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century, after some horrendous bouts with typhoid and cholera, that systems were first employed in Europe. In line with typical human negligence, most refuse was pumped directly into waterways which also furnished drinking water. Called the dilution method of sewage disposal, it is still practiced "in the United States For example, Memphis dumps its raw sewage directly into the “Big Muddy” as it rolls by.
Sometimes waste water treatment is so inefficient it becomes absurd. The stagnant town of Chanute, Kansas (population 10,000), was the fifth burg down the line to use the Neosho River for the dual purposes of taste and waste. A few years back a terrific drought left only a placid pool behind the town dam. Still, for six months the citizens of the town passively brushed their teeth with the same water they could observe becoming more foul each day with their own wastes. Miraculously, no one suffered serious illness before the town bosses declared the miasma unfit for human consumption, after the stench had reached nauseous proportions.
The city of San Diego’s first treatment plant, operating, on essentially the same principal as the one in current use, was built on Harbor Drive in 1943, and eventually handled 40 mgd. Other cities in the area also built their own systems. An explosive population growth rate, however, caused the plants to be overloaded, and by 1955 sections of the Bay had been badly contaminated. After studying the problem, the city constructed the plant currently in operation to handle refuse from the entire metropolitan area.
Now, San Diego’s treatment facility again appears to be inadequate, or at least in the eyes of the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, all municipalities must have at least secondary treatment sewage systems by July 1, 1977; and by 1985 no discharges of pollutants into the waterways will be allowed. The act also recommends recycling of sewage whenever possible.
In compliance with the law, the city initiated a study last fall of alternatives for the next 25 years to the Point Loma complex. A report on the study headed by Dennis O’Leary, a consulting engineer with Lowry and Associates, will be issued some time this month.
The report concludes that. EPA requirements notwithstanding, the present setup is entirely adequate for the next quarter century.
“It's just about a certainty that San Diego won't have a secondary treatment plant by 1977. We would have had to have started construction last month if it were to be completed in time. What is uncertain at this time is whether a new system is necessary." O’Leary said.
Art Coe. a senior engineer for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which serves the function of the EPA in California, predicted the city would be granted an extension and sees some modification of the federal act within the next year. He said the act was aimed mostly at inland pollution and at the New York City area.
According to Coe, who has assisted in monitoring the Point Loma plant, “There is virtually no detectable effect of waste water on the ocean.”
The report also concludes that the plant “is not having adverse effects on marine plants and animal life.” Fifteen years of careful monitoring have revealed consistently low mercury concentrations and no significant amounts of harmful bacteria.O’Leary pointed out that marine life had actually flourished since the outfall was introduced to the area. Kelp and fisheries are abundant now. when scarce before.
Not everyone comes up with the same happy interpretation, however. A local oceanographer, who preferred to remain anonymous, cited a 1970 government publication which stated that habitat changes in the San Diego outfall area “may be quite subtle," but that “species variety declined an average of 30 per cent.” Such a loss of species diversity makes an ecosystem perilously less stable. For example, if a dominant species in an unstable system is wiped out for one reason or another, the entire system might collapse.
The oceanographer added that although there may be more representatives of some species near the outfall, it is not necessarily a sign of health. After all, he said, "You have plenty of ants and flies at a garbage dump.”
He surmised extensive damage on the ocean floor was sure to take place within the next 20 years if the present system were expanded.
The consultant recommends more vigilance over all industrial dumping in San Diego, to protect the waters from chemical pollution. Several years ago an unidentified industry dumped a huge amount of chromate, a heavy metal, into the sewage system. The chromate killed the anaerobic bacteria in the Point Loma digesters, thus temporarily knocking out sewage treatment in San Diego.
“Once an industry dumps, if you don’t detect it immediately, you’re out of luck. There is no way the city can find out about it,” O’Leary said, adding that some industries avoid discovery by having a disposal company haul potentially harmful chemicals to be dumped down a manhole elsewhere. He said the city was fortunate to have such light industry, which makes up only 7 per cent of San Diego businesses. Most cities have as high as 25 per cent industry.
When applied to sewage, the term waste is really a misnomer. Ninty-nine per cent of all sewage is water. In the natural system, end products are never lost, but are retained as a necessary part of the process. Humans, however, are forever imposing odd values on their end products, actually ashamed of a necessary element in life. Only humans know how to make a waste of wastes.
In regard to recycling, the report advises the expansion and improvement of the program already in existence at Santee, where waste water is clarified through a natural lagoon system to a point acceptable for aquatic sports. Along with this, the San Diego River would be used for “live stream waste water reclamation,” so that eventually the now odious waterway could function as a wildlife sanctuary and a place for recreation.
The present use of dried sludge from Fiesta Island would be increased to include Balboa Park and area golf courses. According to O’Leary, much of Mission Bay was landscaped with sludge. The sod in San Diego Stadium also grows greener with our wastes.
O’Leary would like to see total reclamation, including recycling water for human ingestion, but he said such a program could not be implemented in the near future. One obstacle is the high amount of total dissolved solids in San Diego’s waste waters. The hard water is mostly caused by, ironically enough, the salt from water softeners. But the major difficulty with recycling, as with everything else, is the expense. With present technology, it is economically infeasible to reclaim water on a large scale.
The fact remains, sooner or later the city is going to have to make a vast investment to improve the treatment of its sewage. The problem is whether the people are willing to foot a larger sewage bill.
Our guide through the Point Loma plant observed, “Citizens don’t really care. As long as they continue to flush their toilets and it doesn’t back up on them, it’s somebody else’s problem.”