An underwater sewer main is damaged so severely that officials fear it could be leaking human waste near one of the Central Coast's most popular surf spots, but county health officials are trying to downplay connections between the pipe and the beach's recent bacteria-related closures. They're focusing instead on bird waste as the cause.
For years, the waters under the Pismo Beach Pier have tested higher in bacteria levels than at other locations in SLO County.
Earlier this month, a video of the interior of a sewer main that runs underground near the Pismo Beach Pier revealed damage so severe, experts decided it had to be repaired immediately.
On May 1, the Pismo Beach City Council approved an emergency allocation for the repair of the sewer main between the Dolphin Cove Lodge and the Pier Plaza. City staff are currently seeking bids for the work, and repairs are expected to begin within a month.
But even though the damage has been officially confirmed, many in power think the ruptured sewer main isn't the source of the problem.
"It falls into category of not a big deal," County Hazardous Material Supervisor Jeff Poel said of the damaged sewer main. "Think of it as pipe in ground. The ground acts as sealant and a leak may or may not migrate."
What is certain is that the water quality near the Pismo pier is literally shitty at times.
Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group working to make coastal waters safe and healthy, released its Annual California Beach Report on May 23. The report issues grades based on the water quality of more than 500 state beaches from Humboldt County to the Mexican border. According to the group's web site, the grades are based on daily and weekly recorded bacterial levels in the surf zone that indicate pollution from numerous sources, including fecal waste. The higher the grade, the lower the risk of illness to ocean users. A poor grade means beachgoers face a higher risk of contracting illnesses such as stomach flu, ear infections, respiratory infections, and rashes than do swimmers at cleaner beaches.
The San Luis Obispo County Health Department monitored 20 locations on a weekly basis this year, from as far north as Pico Avenue in San Simeon to Pismo State Beach in Oceano in the south.
Of the county locations that received official scores, all received grades of A or higher except the Pismo Beach Pier test site, which recorded a D.
The city of Pismo Beach recently submitted an application for a $500,000 grant under Proposition 50, a clean beach initiative, to provide funding to determine the source of the bacteria contaminating the water near the pier.
After not returning numerous phone calls, Pismo Beach Public Works Director Dennis Delzeit sent New Times a letter that stated the committee believes there is a direct correlation between high bacteria levels and the pigeons that have established their home at the pier.
Delzeit and his colleagues believe so strongly that the birds' droppings are the main source of pollution that they've scheduled a June 5 meeting to review a proposed ordinance prohibiting the public feeding of birds on the pier. At the meeting, the city council will be asked to spend allocated funds for the trapping of the pigeons.
Jennifer Jozwiak, the vice chairman of the San Luis Bay Chapter of Surfrider Foundation has a different view about the birds.
"The biggest misconception is that the pigeon is the problem of this," Jozwiak said. "Pigeons could be part of the problem, but hearing about a broken sewer line is very concerning. It's critical we determine the source of the problem before we point fingers and spend a lot of money that is wasteful."