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Climate and Environment

That Super-Sized Sewage Spill Off El Segundo? You Should Rethink Your Ocean Swim

The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant photographed from above
The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant next to Dockweiler State Beach.
(Don Searles)
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After a back-up at the Hyperion Water Plant Reclamation Plant, 17 million gallons of untreated waste were dumped into the ocean Sunday night, closing El Segundo and Dockweiler beaches.

Life guard towers along Dockweiler State Beach
(Photo by Karol Franks via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

L.A. County Department of Public Works says treated wastewater is normally released into the ocean through a pipe that lets out five miles off the coast.

When debris clogged up the system, threatening to shut down the plant and spew a massive amount of sewage into the ocean, it triggered a failsafe operation, causing the wastewater to be released just one mile off the beach for about eight hours.

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LACDPH has kept El Segundo and Dockweiler beaches closed while it tests the water's bacteria levels.

Katherine Pease, director of science, policy and outreach at Heal the Bay, says it's best to avoid the waters in all of Santa Monica Bay right now.

“We don't have any of the results in yet so Heal the Bay is taking more of a precautionary approach and encouraging folks just to stay out of the water in Santa Monica Bay,” she said.

Pease says it's hard to know how long it will take for bacteria to reach normal levels again. Runoff from rain is usually given three days to dissipate but raw sewage is different. “That's much more dangerous, potentially, and depends a lot on the current and the wind,” Pease says.

Long Term Impact

Heal The Bay doesn’t forecast any immediate environmental damage but the spill may cause long-term effects.

“You could get algae blooms when you have an increased amount of things that are rich in nutrients coming into the ocean. But for the most part, it would dissipate fairly quickly. So we're hoping that there won't be impacts to wildlife or the ecosystem that would be very long-lasting,” Pease says.

Tracking Sewage Spills

Heal the Bay tracks annual sewage spills. Smaller events happen in L.A. County every year, usually because of aging pipes leaking into storm drains. In all of 2020 and 2021, the nonprofit recorded 350,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the ocean. The largest spill, of 222,000 gallons, closed Long Beach waters last February. This Sunday’s spill released 17 million gallons of sewage into the ocean.

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Pease notes that water processing protocols and technology have greatly improved in the last few decades, reducing environmental concerns around recycling plants. But in a growing drought, perhaps wastewater shouldn’t be put back into the ocean.

“Hyperion is working on a project to look into completely eliminating their wastewater discharge into the ocean, and recycling that water. We're definitely supportive of treating water as a resource, both stormwater as well as wastewater,” Pease says.

But an area that needs immediate improvement, according to Pease, is how the county notifies the public of urgent beach closures. Without better messaging, beach-goers can find themselves swimming in sewage.

“Unfortunately a lot of people didn't find out about the spill until later in the day. That's something that we'll be talking to the city and the county about to work on,” Pease says.

The cause of the back-up at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plan is under investigation.

  • Thinking about heading out to the beach? You can check L.A. County beach closures anytime online or by calling 1-800-525-5662.
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