As we rework our City of Pacifica General Plan and look at our possible future, we must remain clear-eyed about the hazards of climate change. We also need more transparency and thorough and accurate storm reporting from our city. 

Thanks to Tribune investigation and reporting about the Oct. 24 storm, we first learned the magnitude of the sewage spill onto Pacifica State Beach at Linda Mar in the Nov. 3 issue. On Oct. 27, the Tribune had informed us the wastewater collection system had “processed more than 17 million gallons.”

The initial city press release told us only that the sanitary sewer system was “overwhelmed.” Specific data, as required by law, was reported to the Regional Water Quality Control Board: 2,903,986 gallons was the “estimated spill volume discharged directly to a surface water body” — the ocean at Linda Mar.

 The press release further emphasized that the Wet Weather Equalization Basin reached its full capacity of 2.1 million gallons “preventing this effluent from flowing onto city streets or into the waterways.” The basin did save Lower Linda Mar from the devastation of that additional 2.1 million gallons. However, 35,000 gallons was reported to the Water Quality Control Board by the city as “estimated spill volume that reached a separate storm drain.” Much of the escaped effluent ran through the streets and formed a lake between the sidewalks on Anza Drive. A resident returning home from work about midnight phoned city offices and reported geysers from manholes.

For Anza residents, sewage bubbling up through manhole covers is not new. The gigantic vacuum and power-washing trucks arriving the next morning to clean up are not new. In 2017, Anza resident Paul Donahue wrote:

“On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 8, 2017, the western portion of Anza Drive experienced yet another flooding event. Flooding alone is bad enough, with the last serious flood (2014) causing thousands of dollars of damage just at our house (on) Anza Drive. This past Sunday’s flood was potentially much worse and much more dangerous as the flood was caused by a fountain of raw sewage gushing out of the manhole in the center of the street. The sewage began creeping up the driveways, but luckily, very luckily, did not rise any higher than that. 

“To point out what should be extremely obvious, a six-inch deep lake of raw sewage in a residential neighborhood poses a huge health risk and is unacceptable.”

The statement that our October storm was “unprecedented” is simply not true. The old Tribune clippings files had photos of serious flooding in Linda Mar in 1962 and 1972. Coverage of the early 1980s storm focused on landslides that moved Linda Mar homes and destroyed one family’s children. Two Sharp Park beach cottages were knocked down by the El Niño waves. Eight or nine inches of rain fell. More was recorded from Marin County to Santa Cruz. During that event, many Linda Mar residences were flooded up to their light switches and Linda Mar Boulevard was impassable.

The second and probably more important point is this: With climate disruption, the old 100-year storm terminology is no longer meaningful. The odds are changing. In the November issue of Scientific American magazine, climate scientists are concluding that “record-smashing rainfalls (have been) made three times more likely and 15 percent more intense by climate change.” Those scientists remind us, “As the oceans and atmosphere warm, additional water evaporates into the air. Warmer air, in turn, can hold more of that vapor before it condenses into cloud droplets that can create flooding rains.” We all see a wetter, warmer atmosphere causing devastating hurricanes and flooding rains worldwide. 

We read in the Tribune about the 17 million gallons successfully processed. In the newest Waste Water Master Plan a consultant estimates 20 million gallons/day “Future Peak Wet Weather Flows” capacity for our Calera Creek Water Recycling Plant. The sum of the 17 million gallons processed and the 2.9 million gallons released onto the beach is perilously close to peak capacity of 20 million gallons and raises many new questions.

As we consider our city’s future we are facing real hazards and challenges as climate warming continues. Even considering the planned upgrades to our sewer pipes in Linda Mar we face some unpleasant realities. During the next several crucial years, we can honestly consider our future and make the best decisions only if we have thorough, accurate information. Planning for Pacifica’s future requires us to consider all the facts. We can’t just wait for emergencies. We need a council that will prioritize the effects of climate change throughout town.

Margaret Goodale lives in Pacifica.

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