Long Beach had to close its coastline for 63 days over the last five years because of upstream sewage spills, but city staff told council members Tuesday that the total amount of economic or environmental damage caused by the recurring spills is hard to estimate.

Beach closures caused by raw sewage are a perennial problem in Long Beach because the city is downstream from much of Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers carry debris and pollutants into the ocean, which can make bacteria levels in Long Beach’s water unsafe for use.

Thanks to a robust sewage system, most of the spills don’t originate in Long Beach, which is significantly better at controlling its own overflows than other cities in the region and state on average, according to a report presented to the City Council’s Climate, Environmental and Coastal Protection Committee. But because it still suffers the consequences of other municipalities’ spills, Long Beach is now looking to advocate for other cities in the region to improve their aging infrastructure.

“We are the ones that are having to do the cleanup,” said Councilmember Kristina Duggan, who represents a number of waterfront communities in Long Beach.

Getting other cities to invest in their sewers may not be an easy sell, Duggan said, so, “The next steps are to quantify what it’s costing us for each sewage spill.”

By having a better understanding of how much these spills cost to prevent and clean up, the city could potentially take legal action against the polluters to get compensated and reimbursed for its efforts.

It’s unlikely the city would ever be fully reimbursed for the damage caused by the spills, which drive an unquantifiable number of people away from the beach and even affect Long Beach’s parking revenue, city staff said, but the city could seek compensation for bills such as how much staff time is spent responding to the overflows.

The city has received more than $37 million through the countywide Measure W tax used for clean water projects and is currently building LB-MUST (Municipal Urban Stormwater Treatment), a $30 million plant that would treat potentially contaminated stormwater before it reaches the ocean.

However, staff said Long Beach must address urban runoff from cities upstream and that the city is currently looking into getting more resources and funding for this.

California’s Cleanup and Abatement Account can give grants up to $500,000 for statewide cleanup projects, and money from a settlement can be reinvested into communities affected by the runoffs.

Long Beach is also looking to collaborate with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, which is taking steps to improve routine maintenance and operation of its sewer system throughout the region. By sharing data on spills, they can assess damage more efficiently and reopen beaches more quickly during closures.

“We think that this has the potential to reduce the number of beach closure days,” said LACSD Legislative and Regulatory Programs Manager Sharon Green. “Hopefully to zero.”

Maison Tran is a fellow at the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected].