When the Clean Creeks process
first began, scientifically naive but dogged representatives
from Heal the Ocean and other environmental groups asked both
county and city officials to investigate the origin of bacteria
and viruses detected in harmful concentrations in creeks and
Environmentalists alleged that the bacteria and viruses had
originated from leaky city sewers, leaky private sewer laterals
-- pipes located between houses and city sewers -- and private
septic systems. Not only did the city and county officials fail
to adequately address the environmentalists' concerns, but it
clearly appears that a conscious program of disinformation was
conducted in an attempt to steer their inquisitive minds away
from the leaky public sewer issue.
It is my considered opinion, as one who has practiced hydrogeology
in Santa Barbara for 30 years, that an independent engineering
evaluation of the publicly owned and aging sewer-collection
system would verify what past engineering studies have already
concluded: thousands of gallons of leakage -- into and out of
-- public sewers is occurring every day.
It is a scientific fact that when leakage out of public sewers
occurs, raw sewage is released into underground aquifers. When
the winter rains come, these aquifers are flushed, discharging
into the creeks and eventually to the ocean. The same thing
happens when poorly designed private septic systems discharge
into local aquifers.
A good case can be made that the city's Creek Restoration and
Water Quality Improvement Committee has been slow to investigate
public sewers as a source of ocean pollution.
Why would the city, which is managing the Measure B funds,
and the county's Project Clean Water, spend money on high profile
public-relations campaigns, but fail to focus in a timely manner
on the obvious issue of untreated sewage?
The answer is, predictably, money and politics.
I distinctively recall a government official sum up at a public
hearing by saying that a proposed water sampling program was
just "the tip of the iceberg."
What he was implying was that addressing repairs to our aging
waste infrastructure would cost tens of millions of dollars,
that fixing leaky private sewer laterals would cost thousands
of dollars per residence, and that replacing private septic
systems with public sewers would cost tens of thousands of dollars
There appears to be insufficient political will to address
such a large undertaking. The city and county task-force managers
seem content with PR releases and endless workshops, rather
than conducting DNA studies intended to identify the specific
source of bacteria found in creeks and the oceans in alarming
What the committee needs to do, and to do right now, is utilize
forensic science to identify the sources of bacteriological
Such investigative methods may well yield the following conclusions:
- Street sweeping, trash cleanups and storm water filters
are high-profile and laudable efforts that do little or nothing
to address human health risks related to body contact with
creek and ocean water.
- Feces from raccoons, coyotes and other indigenous creatures
are a detectable but small part of the problem.
- Feces from domestic animals like horses, dogs and cats are
a fairly significant problem that should be addressed with
- Sewer plants are a high-profile source of pollution, but
are not responsible for the largest impacts on human health.
Money spent on further upgrades of the sewer treatment plants
should be redirected, for the time being, to the leaky collection
- Far and away the single most important factor in ocean pollution
along the Santa Barbara coastline is human waste leaking from
failing public and private sewage collection pipes as well
as poorly designed private septic systems.
Everyone seems to be accepting the city's premise that replacing
1 percent of the public's sewer-collection system annually will
somehow solve the bacteria problem; that is simply not so. We
have $2.4 million available annually to address creek and pollution
The new mayor, public works director, city administrator, city
attorney and council members would be wise to direct the Measure
B money toward the waste infrastructure, since unless the city
addresses the real causes of ocean and creek pollution, a good
case can be made that the Measure B funds are being squandered
and the taxpayers are being defrauded.
--The author holds a graduate degree in geology
from UCSB and is state licensed as a geologist, engineering
geologist and hydrologist.