Editor’s Notebook: Sewer emergency over, hard questions remain

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David N. Young, editor of the Catalina Islander.

There is no question that Avalon officials breathed a sigh of relief when Bob Greenlaw and other public works’ officials gave the green light to re-pressurize the system and allow sewage and fresh water to begin flowing again deep under the city.

It’s hard to under estimate the profound impact caused by the lack of freshwater for drinking and salt water for flushing until it literally dries up.

Such was the case this week as residents were plunged into an underground drama when a leak near Pebbly Beach sent officials scrambling and sewage towards the sea.

It is also no secret that there were many heroes who emerged, including the community as a whole, as the aging sewer system gave stakeholders a taste of what unity can produce.

Harder questions will test this newfound cohesion in the weeks and months ahead. How much sewage actually entered the Pacific? Will there be any fines? How much did the city spend during the emergency? Though difficult, these are questions for which solutions will be found.

The hardest question is what can be done long term to fix the nagging problems of Avalon infrastructure. Certainly, Public Works Director Bob Greenlaw has received a trial by fire and thus far, responded quite masterfully.

He has introduced reforms in service acquisition, traffic flow and now wants redundancy for the aging wastewater system (some sections 100-years-old).

Sadly, when questioned about the system during Tuesday’s council meeting, an Edison representative said what most have apparently known for years. In a perfect world, the “entire system” needs to be replaced.

According to a recent study performed by a subsidiary of Michael Baker International, Avalon’s system is located in a valley and fronts the Pacific Ocean. The residents live in the flat area facing the bay and surrounding hills. Approximately half of the residential structures and the entire commercial district lie on the floor of the valley. The remaining residences are on terraced streets rising into the surrounding hills.

The Avalon sewer collection system consists of approximately 9 miles of gravity mains ranging in size from 6-inch to 18-inch. The sewer collection system also includes two sewer pump stations and approximately 1.2 miles of 12-inch and 16-inch force mains.

There have been many cost estimates, but let’s suffice it to say island infrastructure is very expensive to repair and even more expensive to replace.

Obviously, previous city administrations have done what they could, and the current council is now presented with a challenge as well.

Complicating the situation even further, island residents must utilize the system every day of the year, yet the system must also accommodate at least one million visitors per year.

Likely, the four and one half thousand residents don’t impact the system nearly as much on an annual basis as do the summer visitors. But the summer visitors pay the bills so here we are.

One by one, the hard questions that remain after this week’s emergency will assuredly be answered. The council will deal with them as they arise.

What is less certain is whether the stakeholders of the island, when back to normal, can each leverage and mitigate their own interests sufficient to seek and support a common solution to fix the island’s aging infrastructure.

Catalina Island remains an incredibly beautiful and rare place, winning award after award. Tourists won’t likely stop coming anytime soon. Thankfully, there was so much promise in the silver lining that emerged from this week’s crappy situation even if there are hard questions ahead.

Perhaps the hardest one of all to be answered is whether or not the demonstration of unity and professionalism this week will be sustained. Greater still if it becomes a catalyst to resolve very difficult, yet urgently needed long-term solutions for Avalon and Catalina Island.

If the hardest questions can be answered, it could make the others seem easy.

David N. Young is editor of the Catalina Islander. He may be reached at editor@thecatalinaislander.com.

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