Erosion Control

The Ongoing Controversy Over Beach Disposal

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Last week I wrote about the mudslides in Montecito, CA, and the cleanup effort. Some of the sediment and debris removed from roads and neighborhoods—and there are many tons of it to be removed—is being placed on local beaches. The cleanup continues; Highway 101 is open again as of Sunday, January 20, 11 days after the mudslides occurred and a day ahead of Caltrans’ schedule.

Thousands of people are still under mandatory evacuation orders, though, as this local article reports. Some areas are still inaccessible. The Montecito Water District’s distribution system has been badly damaged; Laura Sanchez, editor of Water Efficiency, describes that in more detail here. As the Army Corps of Engineers and others work to clear clogged channels and culverts, the county water resources manager commented that more rainfall is actually welcome as it will show how well the drainage system is now working—although potential debris flows will continue to be a concern for a long time to come.

Costs are rising, supplies are dwindling and the clock is ticking. Explore solutions and new ways to collaborate by joining your colleagues in San Diego, January 22-23, 2019, at the Western Water Summit. Click here for details

One local organization that seems to be at the forefront of addressing the controversy over the debris disposal is Heal the Ocean, an environmental group focused on ocean dumping, improving wastewater treatment plants, eliminating leaky septic systems, and related issues. People have apparently been using the group as a focus for their complaints.

HTO’s executive director, Hillary Hauser, discussed the situation in an editorial, from which I quoted last week, and she followed up on January 17 to address the questions in more detail. You can read her answers to some of the local residents’ specific questions and objections on HTO’s website, but I think it’s worth quoting part of Hauser’s follow-up editorial here as well. The distinction she makes between the damage caused by a one-time (we hope) emergency situation versus that caused by ongoing practices is, I think, an essential one.

She also makes a suggestion for those who are concerned about the beaches: Get out there and help (as long as you stay out of the way of the emergency crews). Many people are doing just that. “These individuals are thinking of how to help, rather than to criticize,” she writes, and adds that HTO is handing out free gloves and bags to anyone who wants to join in.

This is from her editorial:

Heal the Ocean is an environmental group, and one of our mantras is “No Ocean Dumping.” How can you support this? Objectors asked. Our answer is this:
Good environmental work focuses on fixing, upgrading and cleaning up everyday, ongoing practices that pollute. A disaster of monumental proportions, such as the Montecito Mudslide, where a community or city has to dig out of a massive, tragic situation, is not everyday practice – and it is not a time to quibble. We must realize this is not business as usual, and support our emergency workers all we can. Once we get to the other side of this monster that has hit us, we will do all we can to clean up and fix.
In talking to officials, agencies and even the contractors hired by the County to dispose mud on the west end of Goleta Beach and on Carpinteria Beach at Ash Avenue, we reasoned among ourselves the fact that our community is in a lousy situation with no good choices. We must get behind the efforts of emergency workers struggling to open the 101 freeway, clear roadways of mud…as well as look for bodies. And then we pray for those who have been hurt by this disaster.

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  1. Janice
    One thing that is not coming through here is that these dump areas should be better monitored for pathogens. The typical coliform test may not be sufficient. Several viruses will out-last coliform in survival, as will numerous bacterial pathogens. Why does this matter?
    Septic leach fields of homes above the limits of Montecito San’s service area were ripped up and that septage is mixed in with the mud. Pathogens can survive for extended periods, weeks if not much longer. Dumping mud on the beach sets up an unavoidable issue but one that warrants an understanding that I do not see being discussed.
    Sandy beaches are naturally mixed with ground up kelp. This combination is an excellent growth medium for bacteria. Ground up kelp is basically a raw version of agar, what they put into Petri dishes to grow bacteria in the lab.
    Introduced pathogens brought in with the mud mix in this growth medium (beach sand) and so reservoirs of introduced bacteria will likely remain. The major portion of surviving bacteria will be in the mud and sand, not in the water column phase. But it is most likely the water column, not the mud interface where the testing goes on. That skews the test results and may favor an early return to beaches that should remain unpopulated much longer.
    Dr Edo McGowan

    1. Dr. McGowan,
      This is a good point, and one not addressed here. For those interested in more on the subject, this article published some time ago in Stormwater reports on an early study showing how readily pathogens survive and increase in beach sand, especially at the wrack line:

      And this article describes a University of Hawaii that showed bacteria in beach sand can recontaminate the water:


  2. Janice, many thanks for presenting the added and informative material on beach sand. In 2011 at the Headwaters to Ocean Conference in San Diego, I presented a paper as a panel member on the effect of short shallow outfalls on beach contamination. On that same panel was a scientist from Scripps, and the take home I got was that the diffusers reaching into the ocean from sewer works (wastewater treatment plants) could send a dense plume down current, contrary to espoused dogma. Thus the problem seen in the San Diego area may also be the result of plume carriage from southern systems discharging into the warm, northern-moving near-shore current.
    Off our local shoreline we have three short shallow outfalls: Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria. Studies on Montecito with tracked sensors indicated that in about 50% of the time, effluent released was potentially carried back to the shoreline.
    This then confounds ideas about the amount of contamination attributed to stormwater, hence the idea of safety in non-rainy seasons when there is no or little stormwater discharge.
    Dr Edo McGowan

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