Part 8: Conclusions and Decisions

Objective: Articulate the process by which you make decisions, and the priorities you set on different considerations. You will not be graded on your political views, but you may be graded on your ability to support those views clearly, using scientific evidence.

Assignment 8.1: Scientists' Conclusions

We have not yet found a connection between coastal ocean processes and bacterial contamination on the beaches.

We do not think bacteria in the plume contributes substantially to the contamination events on the beach that exceed the AB411 standards

Decide whether you agree with the scientist's conclusion. Is their evidence compelling? What more would you like to know before deciding whether to believe the result? This is a good time to discuss the issues with your classmates and review the scientific evidence regarding sewage transport. Responses to this assignment and the next could be combined into an essay. Or you could simply vote in class on whether you believe the conclusions.

Many people, including students, scientists and policy makers, have asked about other possible sources of bacterial contamination at the beach. But, the Orange County Sanitation District Board of Control did not have that option. They were under great public pressure to make a decision about upgrading the sewage treatment plant. Other studies were being conducted that might later help clarify the source of the bacteria, but those studies were not yet complete.

Assignment 8.2: Making a Decision

Now it is time to pretend that you are a member of OCSD's Board of Control. Imagine that you are a member of one of Southern California's leading families. Several universities and research institutions are named after your family, and you have a great deal invested in the environmental and financial well-being of the region. You probably do not surf any more, but your children and grandchildren do.

You now have to decide, given the information presented here, whether to upgrade the OCSD sewage plant to full secondary. Remember, federal law requires the upgrade, but you may be able to get the treatment waiver renewed, so that you are allowed to continue with your existing plant. Upgrading to full secondary treatment will cost about $300 million, and require rate increases for your customers. The scientists whose $5 million study you funded are convinced that the sewage outfall is not responsible for closing the beach. Oh, and there are a bunch of environmentalists in the room, chanting "the worst, the most, they're dumping on the coast!".

First, consider what matters to you. Should this decision be based only on whether the sewage outfall is causing beach closures, or should you consider all effects of the outfall in the area (such as the effects on marine life offshore)? Should the decision be based on a cost/benefits analysis, or on a zero-tolerance policy for polluting the ocean? Does public opinion matter to you? If so, are you more concerned about environmentalists or your customers who may object to rate increases? There are no right or wrong answers these questions, but it is important for you to think about your own decision-making process. Do some writing or discussion here. Now put it to the vote: to upgrade or not to upgrade?

Assignment 8.3: Other Considerations

Whichever way your vote went, you will not see the effect immediately. Upgrading the sewage treatment plant will take several years. There are two other things we can do in the meantime, conduct further studies and/or chlorinate the sewage.

There is a relevant study going on right now - Stan Grant and his colleagues are measuring bacteria in different locations, and may be able to identify sources of sewage in a year or so. But the OCSD waiver decision must be made NOW, without knowing the results of Stan's study. Do you want to fund any other studies of the outfall, bacterial sources or pollution transport?

How about killing bacteria? Secondary treatment does not kill bacteria, just reduces the amount of particulate matter in the sewage plume. You could dump a lot of chlorine bleach in the sewage, for a lot less than the cost of the upgrade. Chlorine in the ocean could harm other organisms; consider the way your eyes feel in a swimming pool (ouch). The environmentalists, say that it would be "criminally negligent" to chlorinate the sewage, but they have not shown any interest in listening to scientists or engineers. In fact, the process of killing the bacteria changes the chemical nature of the chlorine, rendering it less harmful. Then there is a de-chlorination process involving sulpher. It is a complicated process, but commonly done, and your engineers say they can do it safely. Chlorination could also be a useful experiment. If you kill all the bacteria in the sewage, but the beach is still nasty, the bacteria on the beach did not come from the outfall. So, do you want to try it?

Assignment 8.4: Making it Personal

At the time of this study, I was teaching at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which is right on the ocean. Sewage from the neighborhood where students live was treated at the primary, but not the secondary level. The sewage outfall was offshore from the public beach, and local currents would carry the effluent along-shore to the campus beaches and the most popular surfing beaches. So, imagine your sewage is being dumped on your beach. Upgrading the system will cost you $8 each month out of pocket. Will you pay for it?
Back to Cold Water Huntington Beach Next: Follow Up Studies