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Human waste making swimmers ill

Voice From Santa Barbara: Michael Hoover


While Mayor Marty Blum's guest commentary in the Nov. 9 Voices section gives credit to the City's Creek Restoration Program for preventing waste oil contamination and cleaning up trash in local creeks, there is little or no mention of the core issue that fostered the passage of the Measure B: People getting sick while swimming in the ocean.

People swimming in our local waters are not getting sick from waste oil and trash, the primary focus of the Creek Task Force to date. Most experts agree that we are being impacted by body contact with untreated human waste that is finding its way into our creeks and oceans.

As best I can determine, there is nothing on the Creek Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Web site, and nothing in the mayor's letter that addresses this issue.

In fact, there has historically been a concerted effort by some city and county bureaucrats to deflect investigative efforts away from leaky public sewers and improperly functioning private septic systems.

Michael Hoover - Geologist/Hydrologist

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 the ocean.

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 per residence.

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 concentrations.

What the committee needs to do, and to do right now, is utilize forensic science to identify the sources of bacteriological contamination.

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 new regulations.

  • 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 system.

  • 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 problems.

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.