Marco Valdez shows off a bonito on the Pepper Park pier in National City, while Don Cruz preps for a selfie, Sept. 14, 2023. Valdez said that these days they throw back most of the fish that linger in the Sweetwater River due to frequent news of water contamination, but the bonito is a picky eater so it was a keeper. (Philip Salata/inewsource)

Why this matters

The two largest sewage system pumps in San Diego are aging and won’t be replaced for years. Meanwhile, large-scale sewage spills are occurring more often, especially as the region faces more heavy rain events.

Most of the fish that Marco Valdez catches at the mouth of the Sweetwater River in the South Bay he throws back. He says that in his community, talk of water contamination circulates on the regular – and ever more often.

“You hear this in the news all the time, Pa’,” Valdez told an inewsource reporter as he reeled in his line.

In 2020 one of the two largest sewage pumps in San Diego was undergoing electrical issues when a storm came through. The pump unleashed 11 million gallons of untreated sewage water into the Sweetwater River just above Pepper Park in National City, a widely used fishing and community gathering spot with public waterway access for local boats. 

The sewage dragged past the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for a number of endangered animals, and curved its way out to sea.

Earlier this month, the city of San Diego and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed on a $4.6 million settlement after a three-year dispute. The agreement says the city will allot $3.7 million of those funds for community and restoration projects. It also sets a schedule for repairs.

While the settlement negotiations were underway, water authorities launched an additional investigation looking at another spill this year by the city of San Diego that resulted in an additional 11 million gallons of untreated sewage water surging into San Diego Bay.

A majority of the sewage spilled as a result of a programming error that caused the second of the city’s two main pumps to shut down. The case is pending.

Deferred improvements to sewer infrastructure are partly to blame, said David Gibson, the regional water board’s executive officer. 

“Those can result in a wave of sanitary sewer overflows when the system is under stress,” Gibson said.

In the last decade, almost 36 million gallons of sewage have spilled in the San Diego County region. The city is responsible for about 30 million gallons of that total. A majority of that sewage spilled in the last three years, and almost all of it reached surface water bodies that are in public use.

Penalties are rare except when spills involve large volumes of sewage. The city has been fined eight times, including three times in the last decade. Prior to Sweetwater, the most recent fine was for the Tecolote Creek spill.

That settlement also directed the city to allot a portion of the fine toward environmental projects to benefit the community. The penalties are among the few occasions when many of the local environmental organizations receive money from the city.

“We typically don’t get any money from the city of San Diego,” said Andy Yuen, a project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge. Yuen said this will be the first time they will be involved with the city in sewage spill mitigation project, and that he’s glad the community programs will benefit.

View of downtown from the estuary at the mouth of the Sweetwater River at San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 14, 2023. (Philip Salata/inewsource)

Aging pumps a problem

The city’s recent fine stems from aging infrastructure that water officials said should have been fixed. 

The pump that malfunctioned was built in 1963 and is a key junction point for carrying sewage from the border region up to a treatment plant in Point Loma. Though it has seen repairs over the years, the water board determined that more serious repairs were not only overdue but foreseeable.

“The pump doesn’t last forever,” Gibson said. “If you know it has 15,000 hours, or 50,000 hours, you plan ahead to replace it before it gets to 50,000 hours.”

According to Gibson, the water board pressed the city as to why the repairs were not made in time and did not receive a satisfactory answer. Gibson said the city collects fees for the sewage it treats and the water it sells, and that those fees are supposed to be dedicated to improvements and repairs.

A city official said the issue wasn’t the money, but the timing. 

Tom Rosales, San Diego’s assistant director of water recovery, said the pump failed before the storm and repairs were delayed when a whole team of workers fell out of commission after being exposed to COVID. It was several hours before anyone noticed the breach.

After the 2020 spill, some repairs were made to stop the pump from breaching and those repairs held up during Hurricane Hilary. But the overall system is aging and in need of large-scale renovations. 

A 2018 city analysis called for substantial modernizations of both pumps on the line to the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. At that point the city had not set deadlines for the upgrades, but as a result of the settlement, Pump Station 1 is slated for renovation to begin in 2026 and to be completed by 2028. 

Community projects benefit

Local activist Phillip Musegaas of San Diego Coastkeeper said his organization was “heartened to see the water board hold the city of San Diego accountable for the 2020 spills that polluted the Sweetwater River and the Bay.”

He added that he’s glad the penalty will go toward restoration and community-focused projects “where the harm occurred and clean water challenges remain.”

The City chose two programs to fund as a part of the issued penalty. 

Ocean Connectors works with underserved communities on environmental projects related with migratory marine life and habitat restoration. The group, which hosts South Bay youth to learn about the estuary through hands-on work, will receive just over $1 million to expand the education program and restore 6.5 acres of damaged habitat on the bay, projects that are already underway.

Janaira Quigley, the executive director of Ocean Connectors, said that she has nothing but gratitude for the water board and the city for taking something that can’t be undone and turning it into an opportunity. The money, Quigley said, is also allowing them to expand programming to many more students and partner with Sweetwater Union High School District to build out a career pathways program that will introduce students to jobs in the blue economy.

“It doesn’t have to stay a terrible tragedy,” Quigley said. “We can use the funding to put right back in.”

The second project, Living Shorelines Sweetwater Channel Project,will receive $2.6 million to reinforce a thousand feet of riprap, layers of erosion-controlling stones, along the Sweetwater River with hollowed-out cement structures. The blocks double as a shoreline retainer and provide potential habitat for marine life. The project is yet to commence, but Quigley also plans to have students help collect data on its effects.

After catching a fish, an osprey flies along the shore of the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge, Sept. 14, 2023. Toxins and plastics from sewage spills enter the food cycle of local fauna. (Philip Salata/inewsource)

Impact extends beyond the water

Sampling the water several days after the 2020 sewage spill, Rosales says San Diego officials  reported no impacts on the water quality in the bay area.

But Yuen, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it’s difficult to know for sure.

“Short of us having a long-term monitoring program, which we don’t have,” Yuen said, “it’s really hard to know the impact of a spill of this nature.”

The water isn’t the only concern, said Andrew Meyer, conservation director for the San Diego Audubon Society and a key figure in the ReWild Mission Bay project, which is working to restore wetlands in northeast Mission Bay. 

Wetlands such as those at the mouth of the Sweetwater River are absorbent and take in large amounts of toxins, Meyer said.

Chemicals, trash and caffeine are absorbed by the marsh and can then enter the food cycle of the habitat. The San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge is a primary breeding ground for endangered birds such as the light-footed Ridgeway’s rail and a safe haven for animals such as the Pacific green turtle.

“For better or worse, a tidal wetland is a great filter,” Meyer said. “So if you have poor water quality, for sewage reasons, flowing through a marsh, it’ll be better on the other side.”

‘We throw em’ back’

Pepper Park is riddled with fishermen, families and strolling couples. People linger and gossip – of late it was about the Russian mogul’s seized mega yacht blocking the sunset from the pier. Locals feel slighted that their park was considered an “out of the way” place to leave it.

Valdez has been fishing off the pier for over 20 years. He would bring his daughters to teach them how to fish, and as they grew up, his trust in the quality of the water diminished.

“This is a family type of park,” Valdez said as he showed off a bonito that measured several feet.

He still fishes there, but he is more vigilant – he chooses his fish wisely. The bonito, he said, is a picky eater, and it comes into the bay from the open ocean, so he and his friend Don Cruz decided to take the chance and keep the fish.

Valdez stays tuned to news about contaminated waters, but even he hadn’t heard about the 2020 spill. But he wasn’t at all surprised and was quick to voice it.

“Are new generations going to be dealing with this crap all the time?” Valdez said. “Are people going to be safe to go in the water and enjoy life?”

The seized mega yacht “Amadea” blocks the view off the pier at Pepper Park, National City, Sept. 13, 2023. (Philip Salata/inewsource)

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Philip Salata joined us in September 2023 as an investigative reporter and multimedia journalist focused on the environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. His position is supported by the California Local News Fellowship, a new statewide initiative spearheaded by UC Berkeley aimed at...