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What a Local Sewage Spill Actually Looks Like

A sewage spill that went unnoticed for two weeks in an unincorporated part of the county near El Cajon ultimately dumped 900,000 gallons of sewage into Los Choches Creek. Here’s how the county, and one family in the spill’s crosshairs, responded.

A damaged county sewer line spilled 900,000 gallons of sewage into Los Coches Creek. / Photo courtesy of San Diego County

A sewage spill dumped a bunch of human waste into a creek in East County, but only the one family to specifically complain had a cleanup visit from the county.

The spill started when a 12-inch plastic pipe owned by the county dislodged from a sewer main during a February storm and began emptying sewage into Los Coches Creek, in an unincorporated part of the county near El Cajon.

A neighbor near where the line broke first noticed the damaged pipe on the evening of Feb. 28, but for some reason didn’t report the spill. County workers eventually found it more than two weeks later, on March 17. By then, an estimated 900,000 gallons of sewage had spilled into the creek, which flows into the San Diego River and then out into the ocean.

During the time it went undetected, the leak became one of the largest sewage spills in recent years.

The spill was one of 25 sewer spills this year, according to data from state water-quality regulators. Combined, those spills sent 1.2 million gallons of sewage into San Diego waterways. The Los Coches spill was, by far, the largest of those spills and one of three other spills of sewage from county-owned lines.

When a spill like the one in Los Coches Creek happens, the county tests the waters for bacteria and then files a report on the whole incident with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

According to that report, once the county realized it had a spill on its hands, it acted quickly. A county sanitation worker spotted the spill at noon on a Friday. An emergency crew was on site with 30 minutes.

By 2 p.m. on the same day it was discovered, county crews had bypassed the broken line and a new line was up and running.

Two days later, the county sent out a press release about the spill and warned people not to have contact with the creek.

Not only do people have homes along the rivers, but one recent study paid for partially by the county found that between 900 and 1,000 homeless people live along the banks of the county’s major rivers and creeks – a population that may be growing as homeless people are pushed out of downtown.

Los Coches Creek raged across Wade Carter and Alex Snyder’s backyard in Lakeside. It had rained a lot, so high water was to be expected, but the smell was not.

Water filled with sewage forms a waterfall near a home in Lakeside. / Video courtesy of Alex Snyder

As the water raced past, it created a little waterfall near where their daughter liked to play. Carter said droplets of the water bounced up and filled the air – a mixture of fresh rainwater and raw human waste. When he breathed, it got in his nose and he could taste it.

“It was like ocean spray,” Carter said.

Concerned their daughter would get sick from playing along the creek, they called the county.

At least one other member of the public contacted the county asking about the spill. That was a representative of the Rancho Los Coches RV Park, which is also not far from where the spill happened. Daniel Brogadir, an official from the county’s sanitation district, replied in a March 21 email that tests showed bacteria levels in the creek “near background levels” and didn’t appear to take any other action. That same day, though, Brogadir asked other county staff to go check on the Carter and Snyder property because they had reported “very strong odors and are concerned about residual contamination.”

The couple showed county staff dramatic cell phone video of brown water flowing near their backyard. It looks pretty nasty, but county spokesman Michael Workman said none of the debris in that brown water “could be visually identified as untreated sewage.”

In late March, after the broken pipe had been fixed, the county dispatched a contractor, Luth & Turley, to disinfect the backyard.

“Although no contamination was evident, out of an abundance of caution, the entire area in the back yard near the creek was sprayed with a bioremediation product that would eliminate any fecal matter,” Workman said in an email.

The county picked up the $7,000 tab.

In a report to the Regional Water Quality Control Board about the spill, the county said it would identify other sewer lines in flood-prone areas and begin monitoring them daily during major storms so another large spill won’t go unfixed for so long.

Carter and Snyder also have a new plan.

“We lock the kids and animals and everything up when it rains now,” Carter said.

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