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Sewage spills last year far below average, Orange County health report shows

Sewage spills closed Orange County’s beaches, bays and harbors the least number of times in 2022 than seen in the past three decades. The 85 spills reported to the county’s water quality monitors during the year was well below the annual average.

A biennial Ocean, Harbor & Bay Water Quality Report released recently by the OC Health Care Agency covers Orange County’s 42 miles of open ocean coastline and 70 miles of harbor and bay frontage. On average for the past 30 years, there has been 184 spills reported per year into those areas, according to the report.

Of the 85 spills in 2022, including one that carried over from 2021 to 2022,  4% resulted in ocean, harbor or bay water closures, representing a total of three ocean water closures for the year.

What causes most of the spills? Blockages in pipelines have been responsible for an average of 72% of all beach closures since 1999.

Among the major causes of pipeline blockages are the infiltration of roots and the buildup of grease, officials said.

Stefanie Sekich, senior manager for the Surfrider Foundation’s coast and climate initiative, called the report “fantastic news.”

Orange County is ahead of the curve when it comes to recycling wastewater at sewage facilities and using it as groundwater, which gets treated above federal water standards, unlike other areas of the state and across the country, which have massive sewage issues on a continual basis, she said.

“It’s great Orange County is making progress,” she said. “We are dealing with sewage better in Orange County than other parts of the state. I think it’s going to lend itself to seeing less closures and spills.”

But, she warned, it may not be a similar story when the next data set comes out, with this wet winter’s series of atmospheric rivers putting pressure on old infrastructure with a heavy rain load.

“We’ve had multiple closures not reflective in the report, data will be different next year,” she said.

If atmospheric rivers become the norm each winter, the pressure on deteriorating infrastructure will continue and more sewage will likely flow into the ocean, she said.

Having beaches closed down from sewage spills impacts users’ ability to get in the ocean and can affect the local coastal economy, she noted.

While the fewer sewage spills seen last year is progress, work still needs to be done and the numbers need to be “way less than that in the future,” Sekich said.

The report also looked at rain advisories that are issued when bacterial levels are elevated, which can cause illness in swimmers, surfers and divers. Rain can transport trash and pollutants from inland sources down to the ocean.

In 2022, 12 rain advisories were issued resulting in a total of 46 days in the year when people were warned to stay out of the water.

Following rains, the public is urged to wait at least three days before going in the ocean.

Source: Orange County Register

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