Peak beach season is here, but many beachgoers continue to have questions and concerns about water in the aftermath of a major sewage spill at the Hyperion water treatment plant in Los Angeles.

The disaster—debacle may be the better word—began on July 11, when the plant reportedly experienced a filter blockage that flooded the treatment facility and sent 17 million gallons of sewage into the water. 

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health failed to notify first responders, including Los Angeles County Lifeguards. Neighboring cities were also not notified of the disaster. The county belatedly shut down Dockweiler and El Segundo beaches, but the closures came hours after health officials became aware of the emergency.

The beaches reopened on July 16, and testing has shown that water sampling meets state safety standards, but the damaged facility is still discharging partially treated sewage. An expose in the Los Angeles Times states that Hyperion “has violated multiple water pollution limits.”

The nonprofit organization Heal the Bay released a statement on August 4 calling the ongoing crisis at Hyperion as catastrophic.

“What is even more concerning is that the levels of certain pollutants appear to be increasing over the last couple of weeks (the weekly average numbers are getting larger),” the announcement states. “These high levels of total suspended solids (TSS), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), settleable solids, turbidity, and oil and grease may have long-term negative impacts on marine life and ecosystems.” 

The situation is so serious that Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) is asking for a federal inquiry. Lieu sent letters to the EPA and NOAA requesting that the agencies initiate an investigation into Hyperion’s “massive and continuing wastewater discharge into the ocean.”

“Given the severity of recent incidents, the subsequent and continued discharge of untreated and partially treated wastewater near highly trafficked beaches, and the lack of clear communication by the City of Los Angeles, an investigation into the facility’s operations, response, and environmental impact is warranted,” Lieu wrote.

While the Hyperion disaster has raised concerns with beachgoers in the local community, a recent beach advisory at Topanga State Beach was not related to the sewage spill, but rather to bacterial fluctuations at the outflow of Topanga Creek, according to the health department. Water quality issues at Avalon on Catalina and at Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades were also not related to the Hyperion disaster.

Heal the Bay recommends checking the latest beach conditions at the LA County Department of Public Health’s website (publichealth.lacounty.gov) or on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card site: beachreportcard.org, before heading for the water. It’s good advice. The Topanga Lagoon has recently experienced high levels of indicator bacteria; while Tuna Beach, Topanga State Beach’s immediate neighbor, has had A+ ratings for most of the summer, and so has Castlerock Beach, opposite Sunset Mesa.

The Hyperion situation is a reminder that water quality can change fast and that beachgoers should never take water quality for granted, but it doesn’t mean that one can’t enjoy a day at the beach. For consistently good water quality, head up the coast. Leo Carrillo Beach, Puerco State Beach, Broad Beach, Escondido State Beach, and Nicholas Beach were all on this year’s Heal the Bay Beach Report Honor Roll (numbers 3-8 on the list). Zuma is another good choice. It has received solid A+ ratings all year. Just remember to check the water quality before heading out, and never swim or surf near storm drains or creek outflows, even during dry weather.