Los Angeles County officials say a year's worth of work has transformed the way the county reports sewage spills. KPCC's Molly Peterson says agencies are still working out how to protect public health in local waters.
Molly Peterson: Last January, L.A. county's auditor found that in 90% of sewage spills to waterways, officials had failed either to keep records, or to notify anyone, or to take action. So, they started to keep better track. An auditor's report out this month records a dramatic rise in the number of spills. County public health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding says last year there were 773 spills – 83 of which involved a thousand or more gallons of sewage.
Jonathan Fielding: Whenever we have a discharge that is going to reach the ocean, where people in fact could come in contact with it, it's not in the storm drain system, it's going to be in the ocean, we notify the public. That's our criteria.
Peterson: The county's Web site lists them all. Hundreds of them are tiny, caused by residential remodeling, or roots growing into pipes. Fielding says crews fully contained a good number of last year's major spills. But the county closed beaches about as much as usual: seven times last year.
State law still grants the power to decide when to close a beach to the local public health officer – like Fielding, or Long Beach's recreational water manager, Nelson Kerr. Kerr says he weighs lots of factors before he decides to close a beach.
Nelson Kerr: What is it that spilled? Is it sewage? But is it treated sewage, is it untreated sewage? Is it a chemical? How far away is it? Is it raining? How is the river flowing, is the river full?
Peterson: Kerr says testing the water takes time. And it's just a proxy for what makes people sick; testing for all bacteria isn't practical or required. The water director of the environmental group Heal the Bay, Kirsten James, says governments still act too slowly to report sewage spills and follow them up with tests.
Kirsten James: You know, often times, a significant spill will occur, and it will breach receding waters, but then there will be reporting issues and the beaches won't get closed.
Peterson: James says that too often, big spills don't close a beach. Two months ago, a city contractor's action spilled a hundred thousand gallons of sewage and sent it rolling down the L.A. River toward Long Beach on a rainy Friday night.
James: And we would have expected the beaches in Long Beach to be closed, but in fact, they were not.
Peterson: Long Beach's Nelson Kerr says billions of gallons of rainfall diluted that night's spilled sewage. Still, he concedes that he has to keep a close watch on what happens in the river that winds through so many cities.
Kerr: If it's going to get into the L.A. river, it's going to get down to Long Beach. So, the L.A. river is the big elephant standing in the corner of the room.
Peterson: Local agencies have improved their communication about sewage spills this year, Kerr says. But he's still at the end of the pipe. L.A. County supervisor Don Knabe says the new report shows it's time to look to the pipe's other end, too.
Don Knabe: The spill data now in hand now makes it clear that a more ambitious prevention effort is needed as well.
Peterson: Environmental advocates and local government agencies say they'll monitor the way L.A. County manages beaches this summer. The county auditor plans to report to the board of supervisors on sewage spills again, about a year from now.