What the city’s sewage is not doing to the Pt. Loma kelp beds.

The end of the pipe

Down, down we dropped into the darkening green-brown waters off Point Loma, one nautical mile straight out from the sewage treatment plant toward the south end of the point. My friend Bill Causee and I had already dived onto the sewage outfall pipe that carries some 190 million gallons of treated wastewater every day from throughout San Diego County and squirts it into the ocean, two and a half miles out, in 210 feet of water. That previous dive, a week before, was to a depth of 50 feet. Today’s dive, on Saturday, September 9, was going to be made just north of the outfall, on Point Loma’s outer shelf, called the Lomas Sea Cliff, which is a jagged drop-off from a rutted plateau 75 feet deep to a flat, sloping, sandy bottom at 115 feet.

As the surface light faded, it became harder to see the white anchor line in the typical Point Loma murk. Visibility was 8 to 12 feet. Bill’s bubbles were a gray smudge I could barely make out, though he was only a few feet below and ahead of me. As usual on a deep dive, the descent seemed to take an excruciatingly long time, and the alloyed sense of anticipation and trepidation solidified as the water turned colder and darker.

We had come to this place for two reasons. First, as sport divers who had completed many excursions for abalone, rock scallops, and fish under the Point Loma kelp canopies, we were curious about these deep ledges outside the kelp bed, which we had never explored. Second, I was working on a story about the sewage outfall, which is at the heart of a complex, acrimonious debate concerning how much, if any, damage San Diego’s sewage dumping has caused off Point Loma and whether the federal government is justified in its requirement that San Diego institute secondary treatment of this wastewater.

Many local scientists and politicians think that the price of a secondary treatment system (at least $1 billion) is not worth the benefit of dumping less organic material out of the end of the pipe. But there’s no question that the sewage plume, called the waste field in technical jargon, has on occasion been carried back into the kelp bed by ocean currents, in violation of state health standards. What effect the increased bacteria counts and sedimentation has had on the kelp beds is debatable. It’s possible that the bacteria and viruses in the plume could make divers sick, but reports of illness among Point Loma divers are rare. Respected scientists claim that all that is needed is an extension of the outfall pipe for another mile or so out to deeper water, a project that would cost about $100 million. As an informal but not unbiased arbiter of this debate, I tended to lean toward the side favoring secondary sewage treatment. As a diver, I went to the deepest place one could safely reach, on the northern edge of the pipe, where the northerly ocean currents could be expected to carry sedimentation and bacteria from the outfall, to find out first-hand what effects the sewage dumping has had on the marine life.

As we hit the bottom at 100 feet and adjusted our face masks, checked pressure gauges, and tried to become oriented to the half-light, my heart sank. I must confess that after a couple of weeks of research, I was convinced that this deep ocean cliff was a desert, with little marine life. Lee Olsen, a former president of the San Diego Council of Divers, had reported seeing slimy organic material in the crannies and ledges here some years ago and had said there was a real lack of diversity of marine life. He attributed that to the presence of the outfall and like many serious divers, was extremely critical of the city’s lack of interest in protecting the kelp beds. Other respected divers had claimed over the years that these cliffs were hurting. And I had talked to a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Professor Paul Dayton, a marine ecologist, who has studied the Point Loma kelp beds for almost 20 years, who concurred, saying these deep reefs were “pretty dead.” But Dayton didn’t attribute that condition to the outfall; he said it was just the way nature was out there, even many miles from the outfall. So Bill and I were expecting a rather depressing dive, and I expected to indict the sewage outfall in my story.

What we found instead on the Lomas Sea Cliff was a profusion of sea life that shocked us both. We moved up-current past the ropey holdfasts of bull kelp – whose huge wafting leaves were visible as dark shapes 30 feet above us. On both sides were boulders the size of small houses, with sheer drop-offs that would satisfy most wall-dive enthusiasts. In the patches of sand between the boulders, small white gobies darted, eyeballed us, and fled under ledges. Various wrasses followed us everywhere. Orange corals were more common here than anywhere else I’ve seen off San Diego. Purple bryozoan hard tack covered many sections of rock. Strange puff-ball sponges, some the size of volleyballs, squatted on the flat surfaces. Fat, sourpussed sculpin harrumphed a few feet away when prodded. Orange-tipped nudibranchs, two –inch long snail-like creatures, were easy to spot, as were their larger, fat, white cousins, the ones with plume-like gills. Finger sponges and beds of tiny strawberry anemones carpeted some depressions. The orange lips of rock scallops smiled from beneath the ledges. China cod, black and yellow treefish, calico bass, halfmoon perch, and female sheepshead abounded. I keep thinking that just over the next boulder we’d drop onto a dead patch of algae or stir up some snotty sludge. Damn, my impassioned plea for secondary sewage treatment to save what was left of Point Loma was fizzing away in each exhalation. This was becoming one of the most interesting dives I’d had in Southern California.

As our bottom time drew toward the limit (25 minutes at 100 feet), we spotted something that was perhaps suspicious. Two gorgonian sea fans, which are upright bush-like organisms that usually have a fuzzy lushness to their branches, looked sickly. They were just skeletons, nude spindly twigs blowing in the surge. Aha, I thought. Environmental damage! But then I had to admit that I had seen gorgonians similarly denuded off La Jolla. Things die.

I had become so engrossed in the whole busy scene that I was startled to feel a resistance in my regulator. A glance at the air-pressure gauge showed less than 300 pounds: safe diving technique requires that divers ascend to the surface when they’re down to 500 pounds of air. I grabbed Bill’s leg and ran my finger across my throat denoting no air. We went up immediately. On the surface, as we looked around for the boat, Bill said I had interrupted his raid on a den of three large lobsters.

The sewage outfall pipe is a reinforced concrete tube 9 feet in diameter and 11,450 long. At a depth of 200 feet, a “Y” structure send the pipe off in tow diverging sections. These sections are made of reinforced concrete pipe 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, each 1368 feet long, ending in about 210 feet of water in an 80-ton concrete structure that acts as an anchor. These two sections are called the diffusers. Every 48 feet long along the diffuser legs, on alternating sides of the pipe, is a port measuring 10 by 12 inches. Out of these ports, day and night since 1963, San Diego’s treated sewage has spilled into the sea.

The pipe cost about $10.5 million to build as part of the $52 million metropolitan sewerage system, and it also cost diver Lee Jamison his life. Rod Donnelly, a civil engineer who retired last year from the City of San Diego, was in charge of the inspection process during construction of the pipe. Donnelly, during an interview in his La Mesa home, dug through his diaries relating to the outfall construction and came up with the date that Jamison died of the bends: September 5, 1962.

Donnelly said that Jamison had been on the job since it began, in June of 1962, and he was one of a couple of dozen hard-hat divers who dove constantly and who suffered routinely from the bends. “The bends were very common, but usually minor,” says Donnelly. “Pain in the elbow or knee was just part of the job. The diving supervisor even had his own decompression chamber in his garage. He’d wake up in the middle of the night with a twinge in his elbow, jump in his chamber, and take himself down to 90 feet and decompress.” Many of the hard-hat divers, whose main job was lining up and connecting the 24-foot-long sections of pipe (the connections are compression joints, sealed by an internal rubber O-ring), then dumping the ballast rocks beneath the pipe as a foundation, refused to take a break from their rigors. Jamison was one of these. “He said he was 40, but I think he has 43,” Donnelly recalls. “Older divers like that can’t dive day after day without accumulating problems with the bends. But Lee saw this as his last chance to make any real money.”

While civil engineers like Donnelly were making less than $500 a month, the divers were getting paid by the day, by the depth they dove, and earning double and triple time on the weekends and holidays. Donnelly saw a diver’s paycheck once -- $1800 for one week’s labor.

On September 4, 1962, Jamison was working at 200 feet, helping to direct an airlift suction device that was excavating a hole for the “Y” structure. At that depth, divers had about 25 minutes to work before heading up and making decompression stops at 90, 60, 30 and 10 feet. Then they would be rushed into one of two decompression chambers on the barge over the dive site and brought back down to 90 feet again for more decompression. But probably because he had been diving so much, so deep, and he was in his 40s, Jamison was struck badly by the bends at the 30-foot decompression stop. He was dropped back down to 90 feet, where he felt better for a short time, but then he began hurting again. He was brought up and placed in a decompression chamber, and two Navy doctors were summoned.

The mood on the barge was somber; everybody on the job knew that this was a serious bends hit. “Lee was conscious almost all of the time through that night and into the next day,” says Donnelly, who had the unpleasant task of picking up the diver’s wife and daughter at the airport after Jamison died. “He knew that if he lived he’d be a quadriplegic. They said he gave in, he surrendered. Said, “Let me go…” The job was shut down for a short time, and state officials required that the diving contractor shave another five minutes off the allowable bottom times for divers at all depths. Before the job was completed, in August of 1963, Donnelly says about a dozen divers “had packed their bags and walked off,” having had their fill of pain from the bends.

After the pipe started conveying sewage out to sea, Donnelly himself dove on it many times. He was the head of a city dive team that was part of the water utilities department. “We built the pipe to protect the beaches from sewage,” he proudly remarks, “and it’s done that. That pipe will be there for thousands of years.”

But will it work that long?

“One hopes so.”

Before the installation of the pipe, most of the city’s sewage was dumped into San Diego Bay. After decades of that, the bay had become an open sewer. Jim Stewart, diving officer at Scripps, helped conduct an environmental survey of the bay before the outfall was built, and he says he and a couple of other divers planted kelp in the bay to see how it would do. “After two days, the kelp had turned to slime,” he recalls. The installation of the outfall definitely benefitted San Diego Bay. But one day in 1969, on July 31, according to Donnelly’s diaries, Donnelly dove on the outfall about 50 feet and took some water samples. Tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria, whose source is human waste, on both sides of the pipe inside the kelp bed.

Before that time, it had been assumed by city water utilities staffers that the outfall’s waste plume would remain trapped far out at sea, beneath a deck of cooler water called the thermocline. When this theory didn’t turn out to be true, the city didn’t much mind, since the beaches weren’t considered by the state as a “body contact” zone. Scuba diving was still a relatively small sport then, and divers weren’t a very well organized group. Plus, the kelp bed itself didn’t seem much affected by the bacteria or the sedimentation brought in by ocean currents. The kelp on the north side of the outfall was as lush as ever, and the kelp to the south side, closer to the bay, fluctuated, as it had for many years before the pipe went in.

Then in 1972, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act, requiring municipalities to convert to secondary treatment of sewage being dumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Throughout the 1970s, the city fought this requirement. It based its arguments primarily on the 1973 congressional testimony of John Isaacs director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Institute of Marine Resources, who, along with several other scientists, asserted that secondary treatment was good for inland communities, but for coastal cities like San Diego, it might even be harmful to the ocean. Primary sewage treatment, they pointed out, carries a lot of food to the microscopic marine animals in the sea, and these animals in turn become food for other, larger creatures. The scientists argued that this really was not an unnatural occurrence, since most of the coastal ocean’s nutrients come from land anyway, in the form of runoff.

Secondary treatment, however, involves adding bacteria to the sewage in the treatment plant, which eats away the food material and sends the treated waste out into the sea as useless ash and inert sediment. The scientists claimed that the kinds of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause human disease are not removed in secondary treatment and would still make it into the ocean. Plus, they contended that certain toxic metals in the effluent, when oxidized by secondary treatment, actually become several hundred times more toxic.

The City of San Diego seized on these arguments but misused them. In 1977 the city began pursuing a waiver that would exempt it from having to convert to secondary treatment. And in the five years it took to gain tentative approval for the waiver, the city did not hedge its bets and plan for secondary treatment, just in case. It lost the chance of getting federal grants to help build a secondary treatment plant, and it lost the opportunity to set aside land for such a plant.

In 1983, the State of California designated the kelp beds a body-contact zone. This required that the city drastically reduce the levels of coliform bacteria there. But the city fought to actually increase the levels of bacteria that would be permitted inside the kelp bed. San Diego commissioned a diver study off Point Loma, found few instances of bacteria-related illness in an extremely small sampling of divers, and later argued incorrectly that the minor study was a valid epidemiological study. In short, the city did everything it could to make it legal for the kelp beds to be polluted rather than comply with stringent clean-ocean requirements.

Partly for this reasons, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1986 withdrew its preliminary waiver and has since gone to court to try and force the city to convert to secondary treatment. At about the same time the waiver was pulled, the city changed to advanced primary treatment of sewage, and instances of high bacteria readings in the kelp beds have declined. In 1987, the city council voted to convert to secondary treatment, but earlier this year, at the instigation of Councilman Bruce Henderson, the council started wavering again. Henderson asked Scripps scientists once again for an expert opinion on whether or not secondary treatment is a good idea here.

“It’s a relatively clean outfall, and the city should have stood tall on it,” remarks Paul Dayton, the Scripps marine ecologist. Dayton says he’s “taken a lot of heat” from colleagues who believe that any outfall is bad but that after studying the Point Loma kelp bed since 1970, “there’s not much evidence that convinces me that pipe has affected the kelp forest. There’s no question that the southern end of the kelp bed is stressed, but I think it’s because of the bay, not the pipe.” Like most other Scripps scientists who have spoken out on the issue, Dayton is in favor of extending the outfall another mile.

The Point Loma sewage plant is expected to reach its full capacity of about 240 million gallons of effluent a day in about ten years. Extending the pipe another mile out creates a physics problem – the longer the pipe, the less effluent can be disposed through it. For this and other reasons, at least one more outfall needs to be built to handle the anticipated increase in the amount of sewage produced by future San Diegans. The logical location is in the South Bay. But in order to reach 200 feet of water in that area, you have to go out at least five miles, which means that building an outfall there would be unthinkably expensive. Plus, County Supervisor Brian Bilbray, representative from the South Bay, says people would be throwing themselves in front of bulldozers to prevent construction of such a plant in their area.

To the north is another problem. A pipe has been proposed about five miles north of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but Scripps scientists are opposed to it because that area is relatively pristine, harbors some underwater preserves, and experiences frequent upwelling from deeper water that would probably bring the waste field back toward the beaches.

A current proposal before the San Diego City Council envisions an overhauled sewerage system with several wastewater reclamation plants built throughout the country. This system, as proposed, would obviate the need for secondary sewage treatment and may also relieve the need to build another outfall in the near future.

While the problem of adding outfalls is intractable enough, San Diego’s main outfall at Point Loma is beginning to show its age. Nine months ago, city staffers confirmed that the flow through the pipe is reduced by as much as 40 percent of capacity at times, due either to an obstruction of some kind or the presence of a large air bubble inside the pipe. Tests are underway now to uncover the source of the problem.

From the vantage point of a small boat a mile out from the Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant, the debate over San Diego’s sewage woes is just so much landlubbers bickering. Back on shore, bureaucrats and scientists have been arguing these issues for years and will continue to do so; but out here, the cacophony fades, and the only sounds are the refreshing clink of diving gear and the occasional lopping over of a whitecap. The essence of the debate lies 50 feet below us: the outfall pipe. Has it been bad for Point Loma? Rod Donnelly says that during surveys of the pipe, either using remote-operated vehicles or deep-water divers, you could always tell when you were nearing the sewage diffusers because the fish population suddenly got dense. “One time, we sent divers down with a still camera, and they had trouble batting the fish away so they could take pictures,” Donnelly relates.

But when you’re talking about San Diego’s sewage, almost any assertion can be canceled out by another study. An EPA consultant has found that populations of small starfish and some other bottom species near the diffusers have decreased, while some other small organisms have increased; and this was one of the principal reasons the EPA withdrew San Diego’s tentative waiver from having to convert to a higher standard of treatment. But Scripps’s Paul Dayton calls these biological changes trivial and declares that they have no important effect on the overall balance of the area’s marine life.

The fecundity along the diffusers may soon change, however. Under pressure by the state to come into compliance with the body-contact standards that limit bacteria levels in the kelp bed, the city has decided that instead of building a longer outfall, it will chlorinate sewage on shore to kill off the harmful bacteria. But chlorine is extremely toxic to ocean life, and only tiny amounts can be legally emitted through the outfall. So the plan is to build another pipeline, 12-inches in diameter, that would run parallel to the sewage outfall, through which a dechlorinating agent would be injected into the effluent near the diffusers. In this way, the treated sewage would be chlorinated during its 20-minute ride through the outfall and dechlorinated just before it enters the ocean. What effect this will have on the environment remains to be seen. Some researchers believe the chlorine doesn’t actually kill off the bacteria but simply makes them impossible to detect. The system is supposed to begin functioning in January of 1992.

Bill Causee and I were sick of the dizzying array of arguments and counterarguments and just wanted to see the outfall pipe for ourselves. Obviously, we couldn’t dive the diffusers, but we could drop down anywhere along the pipe to a depth of about 100 feet. For years we had hear stories about bad abalone being taken near the pipe and had talked with divers who wouldn’t go near it for fear of contracting some horrible disease. We chose to dive the outfall at the relatively shallow depth of about 50 feet so we could safely make another dive in the kelp bed later the same day. In these parts the bottom is flat sand and not conducive to kelp growth, so the kelp we wanted to dive later was a couple of hundred yards to the north.

Because of the excellent fathometer mounted on Bill’s inflatable Zodiac boat, we descended right onto the top of the pipe. Seeing such a huge, manmade structure out here where the wild things are was startling, like coming upon a vine-covered Mayan ruin in the jungle. The pipe itself had little growth on it, probably due to the thousands of grazing sea urchins nestled on the rocks piled on either side of the pipe. Every few feet, a twisted length of cable snaked along the curved concrete like a steel vein, having long ago fused to the outfall. We took our regulators out and laid our ears onto the pipe, hoping to hear the rumble of a million flushing toilets, to no avail. All we heard was the crackling of the undersea.

A year after the pipe was completed, Jon Lindbergh, son of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, was hired by Rod Donnelly to survey the outfall. Lindbergh, who had also helped as an inspector on the pipe during construction (often swimming way back into its blackness to check for leaks and air pockets) found that small kelp plants had attached themselves to the moderate-sized stones that were placed by divers alongside the pipe and that in rough currents, this kelp was causing stones to be pulled away. So the city decided to stabilize the pipe with boulders in this shallow area.

These boulders are piled about halfway up the sides of the pipe and have become an artificial reef in an otherwise barren section of bottom. Red and purple urchins now cover these rocks along with starfish, turban snails, and an abundance of sea cucumbers. There seemed to be more urchins on the south side than the north. On many of the rocks, which had been swept clean by the urchins, bright orange buttercup coral polyps had established themselves. Although the preponderance of nooks, underhangs, cracks, crevices, and holes provided by the boulders made for great abalone country, we didn’t see a single ab on the outfall.

What we did see were hundreds of fish. Brown buttermouth perch, silver sargo, green opal eye, pink sheepshead, yellow-and-black China cod, orange Garibaldi, and several other varieties congregated on the reef. Frankly, I was surprised at the number of fish we encountered. I had expected (and secretly hoped, for the sake of my story) that we would see the outfall as a hazard to the locals.

It seemed a little odd that there were so many urchins, but it was much more than a little odd that sea cucumbers were so numerous. I asked Paul Dayton about this, and he supposed that it was because they wanted to be up off the bottom, in the currents, and the piled rocks provided a perfect platform for them. But I came across another possible explanation in the just-releaaseed report on the effects of the San Onofre nuclear power station on the kelp beds near the plant’s warm-water diffuser pipes. Research divers noted an increased abundance of sea cucumbers in the kelp bed near the diffusers; and the scientists who wrote the report concluded that “the observed increase in sea cucumber, which is a deposit feeder, may have been caused by an increased flow of organic particles” at the San Onofre kelp bed. If the abundance of sea cucumbers along the Point Loma outfall is also due to organic particles, the question becomes: Are the particles being carried back in from the waste field or were they carried out of the San Diego Bay? Many divers and biologists insist that a major study needs to be undertaken to determine whether the stressed nature of the kelp bed south of the outfall is related to the drainage from the still-polluted bay or the inward-drifting waste field.

As we came up toward the surface, I was reminded of diver Lee Olsen’s experience in 1981 of ascending through the sewage plume that had moved in overhead when he was diving on the bottom. He said the water was extremely murky, tasted terrible, and smelled worse. As Bill and I swam toward the boat, all I could taste was salt. But the water was definitely murky.

Many divers believe that Point Loma’s legendary poor visibility is directly related to the presence of the outfall. You hear stories of 75-foot visibility in that kelp bed prior to 1963, today, it’s a great day when visibility reaches 20 feet. In a letter to the EPA, written in 1982 by Larry Fromwiller, president of the San Diego Council of Divers, Fromwiller stated, “Diving in the (Point Loma) kelp beds has been very poor this last year, due to extreme turbidity. All too often, once below the thermocline the diver can see nothing. There have been dives where the first indication of reaching the bottom is when the diver bounces off of it… Diver observations indicate there is a link between the waste field and turbidity in the kelp beds.” For many divers it is axiomatic that construction of the outfall pipe coincided with a decrease in water visibility off Point Loma.

I thought the same thing until I started asking around among older divers. According to Rod Donnelly, “The visibility was lousy then (in 1963), and it’s lousy now. It ain’t because of the pipe.” Seventy-one-year-old Wally Potts, one of the original members of the Bottom Scratchers diving club, who dove around San Diego for 40 years before hanging up his fins in 1987, commented, “Divers were a little bit worried about the pipe before it went in, but in all honesty, I don’t see an effect on visibility from the pipe. The biggest contributor of poor visibility in-shore is the kelp beds themselves. The kelp gets this fungus on it that shakes off and clouds the water. Yeah, we had 75-foot visibility off Point Loma, but only when the kelp bed was small. The kelp always fluctuated, and when the beds shrunk, the visibility always improved.”

Bill Johnston, another old-timer who runs two diving boats, the Bottom Scratcher and the Sand Dollar, says he quit anchoring his dive charters at Point Loma several years ago. “It was related to the decreased visibility there sure, but that’s also true at Bird Rock and La Jolla. I don’t think the sewer pipe had anything to do with it. The main reason we stopped going to Point Loma is, there’s no abalone left. But that’s because of the divers themselves.” Johnston says the declining visibility along the coast started 25 years ago, and he’s always believed that it was related to increased development on land, such as farming and construction, and the concomitant increase in runoff. “We’re seeing the same thing down in Baja,” he declares.

“The farming at Cape Colonet (70 miles south of Ensenada) has increased dramatically in the last ten years, and the visibility in the water has shot way down. We used to be able to see the bottom from the boat at Sacramento Reef (40 miles south of San Quintin), but not anymore, and there’s no sewage outfall down there. All the way down to Punta Eugenia, the visibility has gotten bad. I still see giant sea bass down there, but they’re 5 feet away from you when you spot them rather than 30 feet away, like they used to be.”

I’ve stopped expecting much visibility off Point Loma or even La Jolla. If you want clear water, go to San Clemente Island or Catalina or the Caribbean. I’ve also stopped expecting to find abalone off Point Loma, and I was prepared to write something of an epitaph, a diver’s lament, a sad euology for a once great dive site. But Point Loma kept monkey-wrenching my plans. For our second dive, Bill had moved the boat a short distance into the kelp bed to the north of the outfall. We looped abalone irons onto our arms before rolling backward into the water, just in case we lucked onto one of the last abalone within miles. But – within 30 seconds of hitting the bottom, and even before I moved out from the anchor, Bill swam over and dropped a big, fat red abalone between my knees. I bagged it an moved over to a pile of rocks I could just make out, ten feet away between the vertical twisting vines of kelp. After peering into a few holes, I saw it – the delicate line short undulating tentacles that marked the lip of an abalone. It looked plenty big, so I popped it off and measured it. A legal green ab. Fish were circling, as if waiting for a handout, so we broke up some urchins and watched the feeding frenzy. Bill wandered off and brought back another big red, and I had to laugh into my regulator. It was another great dive off Point Loma and my story was blown.

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