City Dealing With 10,000-Gallon Sewage Spill

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

April 22, 2022

A bypass system has been sent up by Pacific Petroleum consisting of two 20,000-gallon tanks and tanker trucks to deal with a broken sewer line that runs underneath Hwy 1.

The new Morro Bay Pubic Works Management team had its first calamity to address when a sewer pipe running under Hwy 1 burst and flowed down a storm drain into a catch basin in The Cloisters neighborhood.

The spill was detected on the morning of Monday, April 11 during a routine sight inspection of the City’s lift station located along a bike path in an 8-acre undeveloped open space section of The Cloisters.

Public Works Director, Greg Kwolek told Estero Bay News that they are unsure exactly when the leak occurred, but it was first detected by the City’s Utility Division crew. 

“We don’t know when this occurred,” Kwolek said, adding that the crew inspects the lift station every Monday and Thursday. “They did not see this on Thursday [April 7] but did see it on Monday. We believe it happened sometime between Thursday and Monday.”

What the utilities workers found was sewage pooled in one of Caltrans’ Hwy 1 storm drain outflows. The area of the Cloisters where the spill was discovered has several large storm drains coming off the highway and emptying into constructed drainage channels.

It’s part of an overall drainage scheme built into the 120-home subdivision, using a natural filtering system that includes a small pond ringed with aquatic plants like willows and reeds with an overflow channel that leads to the beach.

The idea is to capture the storm runoff and have it treated naturally in the pond, settling out solids, with the plant life filtering the water.

The sewage spill did not flow beyond the area next to the highway and never entered any waterways, Kwolek said. He was joined on site by Damaris Hanson, the new Utilities Division Manager, and the new City Engineer, Eric Riddiough. The sewage spill is the first test of their leadership team.

Some 10,000 gallons of sewage was spilled and the City crew immediately went to work to contain the spill, and soon started the cleanup using the City’s pumper truck.

They also got on the phone and ordered a portable bypass system to handle the sewage flow until repairs are completed.

By 7 p.m. that same day, Kwolek said, they had the bypass up and running and the spill cleaned up, with some residual sewage left that had saturated into the ground.

That pressurized, 6-inch diameter line conveys all the sewage from The Cloisters and the Atascadero Beach Tract, essentially, all the homes west of Hwy 1 in North Morro Bay. It’s been there a long, long time.

Kwolek said the “Ductile Pipe” sewer line dates back to 1954, “as far as we know right now.” Ductile Piping is an iron pipe coated inside and out. It is considered very strong and durable, and is used for both sewer and water systems. Ductile pipes have been documented to last over 100 years, depending on how corrosive the exterior groundwater is.

This pipe predates the City’s incorporation in July 1964, which means SLO County oversaw the pipe’s installation, and Kwolek said it even predates the construction of Hwy 1.

The City by last Wednesday had already sent robots with cameras down both the sewer pipe and the storm drain and they discovered that the sewer pipe crosses over the drainpipe somewhere underneath the highway, which is problematic for fixing it. 

Kwolek said to fully investigate the leak they would have to open up the ground on the highway, which would be a major undertaking.

He said they were going to meet with Caltrans officials to discuss how to proceed.

Their options include sliding another pipe into the old one; slip lining it; or horizontal drilling a new pipe underneath the highway. 

Slip lining was previously done on a sewer main line from Main Street, down Atascadero Road to the sewer treatment plant. This was part of the eventual solution Shell Oil Co., and the City reached after a Shell Gas Station at Main and Hwy 41, was found to have leaked MTBE into the groundwater.

The fuel leak was discovered after the City found traces of the fuel additive in its sewer stream. The leak was traced back to the Shell station and the company spent about 6 years cleaning up the groundwater. The station closed for good and was torn down. A U-Haul dealership recently opened on that property, displaced from Quintana Road by the City’s Water Reclamation Facility Project.

Slip lining that sewer main was done at Shell’s expense. However, at just 6-inches in diameter, the Cloisters line is probably too small to be slip lined.

Their robotic examination found, “What appears to be a hole in the sewer line,” Kwolek explained. “It would be pure speculation as to cause — it could be from friction or an eroded cavity — we at this time just don’t know.”

The portable bypass system was set up by Pacific Petroleum of California, based in Santa Maria, and consists of two, large, above ground tanks, 20,000-gallon capacity each, that collect the sewage from the lift station and pump it into tanker trucks.

The sewage is then being trucked to another location in town and emptied into a sewer manhole somewhere on the east side of Hwy 1.

Last Friday the City announced closure of the Cloisters bike path running past the spill area. 

“In order to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe along the Bike Path,” the City’s notice reads the City has closed a section of the Bike Path and diverting pedestrians and bikes onto Emerald Circle. The closure is needed to allow vehicle traffic, including large truck and tankers, in the area to empty the temporary storage tanks. The bike path closure will be necessary until the City can repair or replace the sewer force main under Highway 1.”

Returning the sewage back into the collection system via tanker truck, Kwolek said, was easier than trucking it to the sewer treatment plant on Atascadero Road.

It’s not cheap either. The rental on the bypass system is costing the City $10,000 a day. 

The tanks themselves are not expensive Kwolek said, costing just a few hundred a day, but it’s the manpower costs including the truck drivers and system monitors that are the bulk of the expense.

During the City Council meeting on April 12, the first time the Council met in person since April 2020, some residents were critical of the spill and claimed the City hasn’t done the repairs it promised to do when it raised sewer rates in 2015. Kwolek refuted that criticism. 

“This sewer line is not included as one of our capital improvement projects,” he said. “This was not something even on our radar. We were unaware of an issue until it was discovered on Monday.”

That’s not unusual for underground pipes — water or sewer — which can develop slow, minor leaks that gradually, over the years worsen until one day the spill surfaces, like this one at Cloisters did, or a sinkhole develops, like one that was discovered on Morro Bay Boulevard several years ago.

The repairs are an emergency situation. So money for the bypass rental and likely the eventual fix will probably come out of sewer fund reserves.

As for the consequences, Kwolek said they notified State regulators of the spill and will work with them on a resolution. Such spills are handled by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Kwolek was unsure when they could get a project together, have it reviewed and permitted and a new sewer line installed and running. But at $10,000 a day for the bypass system, time is money.

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