As temperatures reached the 80s and people flocked to the shore for beach cleanups on Earth Day last month, an order to stay out of the water dampened what could have been a very busy beach weekend after months of wet weather in Long Beach.
The beach closure was prompted by the second sewage spill of 2023 that resulted in 250,000 gallons of raw sewage entering the Los Angeles River near Downey and making its way toward Long Beach where the river’s mouth dumps its contents into the ocean.
The spill was attributed to a temporary blockage from maintenance crews from the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.
The spill was larger than the 18,000-gallon spill that closed beaches west of Belmont Pier in March but just a fraction of the nearly nine-million-gallon spill in December 2022, which was the largest spill on record since the sanitation district began tracking this.
Councilmember Kristina Duggan, who was elected to represent Southeast Long Beach—which has the largest share of recreational beach space in the city—said it’s time for the city to look at how it can hold cities and businesses accountable.
“I think the city spends a lot of money on closing the beaches, making sure people know they’re closed, but it doesn’t even look at the perception of Long Beach,” Duggan said.
The feelings some people have toward the cleanliness of Long Beach’s water could be driving people to other beach cities that don’t have water quality issues because they’re not situated between two rivers that dump into a bay with restricted water circulation from a breakwater meant to keep waters calm for port activities.
Some of these effects are quantifiable, Duggan said, pointing to the hundreds of tons of trash picked up off the beach over the first few months this year, and some are not.
On Tuesday, Duggan and two other councilmembers are asking the rest of the body to direct city management to examine the toll these closures have taken on the city, both monetarily and others, as well as working with the local water quality control board to compile a report Clean Water Act violations, the responsible parties and the costs attributed to the violations.
Duggan said the spills have had an economic impact on the city as well as a social one, with beachgoers in the city deterred by closures or repulsed by the idea of going in the water due to the reputation the city’s water has gotten due to the closures.
In the most recent Heal The Bay Beach Beach Report Card, beaches in Long Beach had “A” or “B” grades during the summer dry season but those grades dropped during the wet season when rains brought debris and other contaminants into the water.
When it rained, Alamitos Beach, Cherry Beach and Junipero Beach saw their water grades drop to an “F.”
Heal The Bay’s river report card also listed the lower Los Angeles River watershed as one of the most contaminated in the region, with all of points tested exceeding safe levels for bacterial levels with all six testing sites being listed among the “Freshwater Fails List.”
The Willow Street area, where the water begins to mix with the ocean water, was the highest rated in the report but still had 92% of its tests receiving “red” grades, the worst score for water quality, according to the report.
“We need to get a report for what we can hold other cities accountable for, and actually dig into it,” Duggan said.
The path for recourse could be limited.
City Attorney Dawn McIntosh said that this is a new issue that the city will be looking into if the council approves Duggan’s request Tuesday. Typically, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board enforces any violations of the Clean Water Act, like sewage spills or other contaminants that affect communities and water quality.
Last month, the board announced a $21.7 million penalty for a sewage spill at the Hyperion facility in Playa Del Rey in June 2021.
In July, it proposed a $17 million penalty related to a fire at a hand sanitizer warehouse led to weeks of odors emanating from the Dominguez Channel that led to lawsuits and complaints from residents as far away as Long Beach.
However, those fines don’t typically benefit the affected communities. The board allows those penalties to be paid through the cleanup of spills and investments in equipment that could prevent future spills.
Ailene Voisin, a spokesperson for the board, said in an email that the funding is distributed based on whether the issue is resolved through an assessed penalty or a settlement. Penalty funds are paid to the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Account, which provides grants for the cleanup when “there are no viable responsible parties” to do the work.
Settlements could result in some, or potentially all, of the penalty amount going directly to the affected communities in some cases, Voisin said.
Those would be seen through what the board calls “supplemental environmental projects,” that could include tree plantings, water body cleanups and other environmental monitoring programs in low-income communities of color. Settlement amounts can also be invested into the entities operations to ensure that future spills don’t happen again.
McIntosh said there could be some instances where the city could take legal action, but generally enforcement of water quality is done by the board.
“We’re definitely willing to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do because we shouldn’t have sewage in our waters because people aren’t maintaining their equipment,” McIntosh said.
The City Council is set to vote on the request at its May 9 meeting that is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.