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From bad to worse 

The perfect storm that pummeled Oceano lingers

- CLOGGED :  County officials are adamant that a set of “flap gates” designed to let water flow from South County creeks functioned as they were supposed to during recent rains, but residents contend the gates could have been manually opened to prevent rampant flooding. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • CLOGGED : County officials are adamant that a set of “flap gates” designed to let water flow from South County creeks functioned as they were supposed to during recent rains, but residents contend the gates could have been manually opened to prevent rampant flooding.

When Phil Jones left his Oceano home on the morning of Dec. 19, the water in his front yard was about a foot deep. Every year his sea-level neighborhood floods. However, this time when Jones returned home, he was greeted by fire and police crews evacuating residences. By that point, the water was about two to three feet deep.

“We have been flooded before,” Jones said. “This is the first time we had to be evacuated by the Red Cross, bless their hearts.”

On top of the severe storms and flooding as Meadow Creek spilled into many seaside neighborhoods, the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s treatment plant was overwhelmed, sending hundreds of thousands of gallons—maybe as much as a million gallons—of sewage into the surrounding area.

Jones, an affable retired actor, praised the work of police and fire, as well as volunteers from the American Red Cross. His praise stops there.

“But I do have a beef with the politicians,” he said. “I have a beef with the Department of Public Works, with the authorities of San Luis Obispo County, and also with the management of this waste-treatment facility that’s right next door.”

SLO County was hammered with rain from Dec. 18 through Dec. 22, prompting former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency for the county, along with five others. A recent assessment by county officials showed that the storms resulted in more than $2 million in damage, split almost evenly between private and public properties.

Despite receiving a relatively modest 7.1 inches of rain that weekend—as compared to other communities that received as many as 9.9 inches—Oceano perhaps felt the worst of the storm.

After the clouds passed and the waters subsided, the question many seem to be asking is whether the onslaught of rain was significant enough to cause the sewage issues alone, or if someone screwed up.

Water began filling the lagoon near the Oceano County Airport about two weeks before the big storm, prompting a visit from County Public Works crews to check a set of flap gates that automatically open and close, allowing water to drain into the ocean.

In anticipation of the storm, county crews again went to the gates two days before the storm hit to clear sediment.

Everything, it seemed, was working fine. And according to county officials, the floodgates operated perfectly.

“I know that there are people out in Oceano that are asserting that the flap gates malfunctioned,” Public Works Director Paavo Ogren said. “But we’re not seeing it.”

Some residents, however, still contend county officials have manually opened the gates in years past.

“You can hand raise those gates and at least try to let the water out,” Larry Bross told SLO County supervisors on Jan. 4.

High tides the morning of the storm—estimated at about five to eight feet—also prevented the flap gates from allowing water to drain. Water continued to back up, flooding the neighborhood until the tides subsided, the pressure built enough to clear a sandbar, and the water drained into the ocean.

According to Jones, it took about 36 to 48 hours for water in his neighborhood to drain—but it wasn’t just rainwater.

The floods poured into the pump room at the nearby sanitation district treatment facility, causing all four of the district’s pumps to cut off simultaneously. Water leaked into electrical boxes in the pump station, trickled down the conduits, and shorted a pump’s motor. After that pump died, the entire system shut off.

Plant workers brought in a backup diesel pump, but it took another pump provided by the City of Pismo Beach to drain that water, eventually allowing a worker to wade in and open the valve. However, it took about two hours to get the plant pumping again.

District officials are still determining exactly how bad the spill was. The initial report was 1 million gallons, which district officials soon downscaled to about 110,000. However, they’re still calculating. According to John Wallace, district engineer and administrator of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District as well as president of Wallace Group, the final amount will probably land between 300,000 and 400,000 gallons.

“If the pumps had not failed with the electrical system, we would not have had this problem,” Wallace said.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is looking to see what went wrong, how to fix it, and whether the district violated its sewage management plan.

“It was our understanding also that there were some issues with wiring and it caused the pumps to fail,” said Harvey Packard, enforcement coordinator for the water board.

At Jones’ home, for example, the spill caused raw sewage to seep through the seam between his toilet and the floor, as well as bubble up through his bathtub drain, he said. He estimates the damage to his home at between $9,000 and $25,000.

According to Paul Deis, manager of emergency services for the local arm of the American Red Cross, 29 people registered at the local emergency shelter when it opened. The Red Cross had to put two special-needs families in hotels, and during a recent interview Deis said other families were still staying in hotels after the shelter closed.

Ultimately, the flooding and subsequent sewage spill was a sign of a failing system. County officials found that the system designed to handle flooding of the Arroyo Grande Creek channel—deemed essentially obsolete in December 2009—reached the end of its useful life after 50 years in operation. Officials admit the system needs a serious upgrade, but such a project could cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

For now, officials are hoping to get permission that will allow them to manually break the sand bar as they used to, which would allow water to more easily drain through flooded areas.

“Is there something different that can be done?” Public Works Utilities Division Manager Dean Benedix asked rhetorically. “I’m sure there is.”

Contact News Editor Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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