Nearly 30,000 gallons of sewage spills into Humboldt Bay, other local waterways

Heavy rain mostly to blame for the spills, though officials say it likely hasn't affected drinking water

The Eel River at Fernbridge was at about 18.67 feet mid-Tuesday afternoon. The Eel River was one of the local waterways in which sewage was reported spilled this week. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard)
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Tens of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage spills have been reported across Humboldt County this week. Mostly, the incidents have been blamed on the heavy rain the area has received.

There are concerns the spills could put a damper on at least one local upcoming event.

Grace Hamaker, executive director of the Redwood Discovery Museum, which is hosting the Perilous Plunge in less than two weeks, said she would take the spill into consideration for the event — an annual Eureka tradition in which costumed residents dive into the bay to raise funds for the museum.

“We are aware of the situation in Humboldt Bay and are monitoring the situation,” she said. “But with the sheer volume of water in the bay, we’re pretty optimistic.”

The cities of Eureka, Fortuna, Rio Dell, Ferndale and the Humboldt Community Services District all reported sewage overflows ranging from 1,000 gallons to almost 14,000 gallons. None of the reports indicate drinking water will be affected, but several state the sewage has likely made its way into nearby waterways including the Humboldt Bay, the Eel River, Rohner Creek and Francis Creek.

In total, almost 30,000 gallons of overflowing sewage was reported.

Kyle Knopp, Rio Dell’s city manager, said the overflow is caused by “inflow and infiltration.” Rain or storm water can enter the sewage treatment system directly or through cracks in the sewer system.

“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Knopp said. “It’s really just a problem of aging infrastructure and coming up with the financial resources to replace the infrastructure.”

The city did everything it could to mitigate the spill, Knopp said, including diverting over 25 percent of the spill manually by pumping it into a truck that was then sent off to the waste treatment center.

Knopp said the city has spent years on a plan to upsize components of the sewage system that lead to the city’s wastewater treatment facility, which was built in 2012.

“We have a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility,” Knopp said, adding that the effluent produced is some of the “highest quality effluent in Humboldt County.”

However, the proposed plan came with a price tag of $1.2 million, he said, meaning the city would have to look to the state for funding such a high budget project. For now, Rio Dell is applying for a grant to do a “Sanitary Sewer Evaluation Survey,” which will offer the city “a 30,000-foot view,” offering the city guidance on how to best move forward.

The spills might affect local aquaculture operations, according to Andrew Johnson, plant manager at Coast Seafoods.

“We were already closed by rainfall,” he said, referring to automatic closures triggered by an excess of one inch of rain in 24 hours. “This occasionally happens; it can be a challenge sometimes.”

While the sewage seepage could extend the rainfall closure, Johnson wasn’t sure when things would open up again.

Brian Issa, deputy director of Public Works in Eureka, said the overflow is “just a matter of course.” Issa noted that since so much groundwater infiltrates the sewage system during heavy rainfall, the sewage that overflows is highly diluted by stormwater.

For now, the bay is not its “beautiful green color,” Issa said.

“During rain like this, every sewer system is going to have overflow,” he said. “(Once) it’s already made it to a storm drain, dilution is the solution.”

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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