Sewage Spills in Jan. 8 – 9 Floods

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.

January 27, 2023

The big storm of Jan. 8-9 caused flooding and wreaked havoc across San Luis Obispo County, including causing sewers to spill thousands of gallons and prompting the County Health Department to issue warnings.

Morro Bay Spill

The intersection of Atascadero Road and Embarcadero in Morro Bay got caught up in major flooding that occurred on Morro creek at Main Street when the roadway bridge over the creek became plugged with debris, backed up and flooded an area of about a square mile, several feet deep.

The intersection in photos shows several pieces of heavy equipment being used to build Morro Bay Water reclamation Facility Project conveyance system, covered in water. 

The deluge overwhelmed the sewer system and sewage spilled out of a manhole.

“Due to heavy rains,” County Public Health Department said in a statement, “9,900 gallons of sewage was reported to be released into Morro Creek. The spill started at approximately 11 a.m. and stopped at approximately 11 p.m., Monday, Jan. 9.”

The City explained in a statement on the spill that this manhole was in an area subject to flooding.

“The area,” the City said in a news release, “is located in a flood zone with one of the lowest elevation points within the city. Flooding waters infiltrated into the sewer collection system causing approximately 9,900 gallons of highly diluted sewer water to overflow out of the top of a manhole into Morro Creek.”

The sewage mixed with all that runoff could be a health risk.

“Rainstorm runoff,” the County said, “is known to transport high levels of disease-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses and protozoa from the watershed and urban areas to the ocean. Such organisms carried into the ocean can cause skin, respiratory, and intestinal problems.  Young children, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to these waterborne pathogens.”

The County advised surfers, swimmers and others to avoid the ocean waters right now, especially surf breaks near the mouths of creeks, rivers, storm drains and “other runoff outlets that empty into the ocean. Anyone who inadvertently has contact with ocean water during this time should monitor for symptoms and contact their doctor if symptoms persist or are moderate to severe.”

Rising River Floods Templeton Pond

Templeton had a scary event of its own, caused when the usually dry Salinas River overflowed its banks and poured into one of the percolation ponds of the Templeton Community Services District’s sewer treatment system.

According to County Public Health on Monday, Jan. 9, “heavy rains caused the Salinas River to overflow into the percolation ponds operated by the Templeton Community Service District Wastewater Treatment Plant resulting in the release 300,000 gallons of treated sewage into the Salinas River, which flows northward through Templeton, Paso Robles, San Miguel and into Monterey County.

“The release occurred approximately 2,000 feet south of Vineyard Drive-Main Street intersection. The spill started at approximately 2:45 p.m. and stopped at approximately 5:45 p.m., Monday, Jan. 9.”

TCSD General Manager Jeff Briltz told Estero Bay News that the main treatment plant on the west side of Hwy 1 is where the primary and secondary sewer treatment process is done. The treated effluent — which has not been disinfected — is then piped to a series of seven percolation ponds on the east side of town near the high school and the juncture of Paso Robles Creek and the Salinas River. The ponds feed into the river system underground, a process that avoids the strict guidelines for direct discharge of effluent into any body of water.

“The river rose really rapidly,” Briltz said. “We haven’t seen it rise this much since the facility was developed.”

The river water was spread out over a wide area, greatly slowing the current down. The river flowed into the most eastern of the CSD’s ponds. “The pond essentially went away,” Brilts said. He added that in about 3 hours the water levels dropped considerably and the pond was again unveiled. And by some small miracle it survived.

“We were very fortunate,” Briltz said. “We had little levee damage.” He added that the pond’s levee remained intact though it did have some erosion.

He said their issue wasn’t a “sewage spill” in the normal usage of the term. What they had was secondary-treated effluent, not raw sewage, which they believe was greatly diluted by the river water. 

When the river dropped, the pond was still standing and full of water. How much of the effluent escaped when the river rose, he couldn’t say, but the pond was still full.

“It was not a traditional sewage spill,” Briltz said. “It wasn’t raw sewage.”

Given the extent of what was happening with the swollen river, he was amazed when he went back the next day. “I expected it to be a lot worse.”

San Luis Obispo Spill

The biggest sewer system in the county had the smallest spill, according to the County and this one wasn’t because of the rainstorm.

A blockage in a sewer main on New Year’s Eve (Saturday, Dec. 31) rang in a stinky New Year for SLO.

“Approximately 4,250 gallons of sewage,” the County Public Health reported on Dec. 31, “was released due to a sewage line blockage. The sewage release impacted a storm drain leading to the San Luis Obispo Creek. The spill started at about 5 p.m., on Saturday and was stopped at 6:25 p.m., the same day.”

The spill occurred in the 1000 block of Higuera St., which is near the intersection of Osos and Higuera Streets, near the heart of Downtown. San Luis Obispo Creek runs mostly underground through SLO’s Downtown, day-lighting near Marsh and Santa Rosa Streets and at Mission Plaza. From there, the creek runs free all the way to the ocean in Avila Beach.

The County was slated to start testing theocean waters in Avila Beach after the New Year’s Day holiday and no further warnings have been issued.

Dirty Water Dangerous

Anytime sewage spills — whether from a manhole, an overflowing creek or river or a line blockage — the water is dangerous to human health.

“The County of San Luis Obispo Public Health Department advises the public to avoid ocean water contact during, and at least three days following, significant rainstorms — such as the recent storm. 

“Contact with storm water while swimming or surfing may increase the risk for certain types of illnesses such as rashes, fever, chills, ear infections, vomiting, and diarrhea.”

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