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Study: leaking sewer is polluting the San Diego River, closing beaches

A new study from San Diego State University found bacteria is mostly coming from leaking sewer pipes and not homeless encampments or septic tanks.

SAN DIEGO — Many of us have seen beaches forced to close due to bacteria in the water that often flows from the San Diego River. It's why people are advised to avoid swimming for about 72 hours after a big rainstorm.

"Many people may not know that the beach closures are because of really high levels of fecal bacteria in the water," said Natalie Mladenov, a professor of environmental engineering at San Diego State University and head author on the study.

Researchers at SDSU found the bacteria was mainly from leaking sewer pipes and not homeless encampments or septic tanks as some people had once thought.  

Mladenov says the San Diego River contamination could potentially impact places like Mission Beach or Ocean Beach. The closures we often see in Coronado and Imperial Beach are unrelated and linked to sewage south of the border.

"It's nice to know there's a tangible issue we can actually fix," said Elijah Garcia with the Surfrider Foundation Bluewater Task Force.

The Surfrider Foundation advocates for clean beaches and water quality.

"There's not a lot of studies done like this throughout the United States so it's nice to get more information to solve these issues so that's a good step in the right direction," Garcia said.

They're hopeful it's a step towards improving the sewer system. Researchers believe some sewer pipes are more than fifty years old.

"We do want to maintain our infrastructure if we want to maintain a high quality of living like we have here," Mladenov said.

Next the research team is interested in finding what areas along the river are most contaminated which can help pinpoint where the sewer might be leaking.

San Diego’s F23 budget includes another $343 million to upgrade and repair existing water and sewer infrastructure, including pumps, treatment plants, pipelines and reservoirs.

WATCH RELATED: What's that strong stench coming from the San Diego River? (Sep. 2022).

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