The Water Column

By Lisa Zawaski, senior water quality engineer, city of Dana Point and Linda Homscheid, public information officer, South Coast Water District

Most know that April is the month we celebrate Earth Day, but you may not be aware that April is also National Safe Digging Month, a public education and awareness initiative also aimed at protecting the environment, public health and safety.

Spearheaded by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), National Safe Digging Month serves as a reminder that right under our feet, a maze of electric, gas, water, sewer and other utility lines keep our communities running.

However, just one jab of a shovel can break one of these lines, potentially disrupting services to an entire community—not only harming the environment, but also the public and yourself.

According to the CGA, digging activity damages a buried utility line every three minutes in the United States. But, there is something that we all can do to significantly reduce the likelihood of such incidents.

Know What’s Below: Call 811 Before You Dig

In California, whenever you plan to “move dirt”—that is, hand dig or excavate with power equipment—state law requires you to locate utility lines beforehand and then steer clear of them.

That may sound hard, but it’s actually fast, easy and free to do.

Southern California provides a no-cost utility locator service called DigAlert. Whether you’re a professional excavator, contractor, business owner, homeowner or do-it-yourselfer, you can contact DigAlert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, simply by calling 811.

At least two days before you start digging, call DigAlert or go online to DigAlert Express at You will be asked for specific project information, such as the location and type of work, and receive a ticket number.

DigAlert will inform local utilities to send out personnel to identify and mark the location of underground utility lines within your project area or inform you there is no conflict. In accordance with American Public Works Association color coding, green indicates sewer lines; blue, potable water lines; orange, gas lines; and red, electrical lines.

Before starting your project, state law also requires that you hand dig and expose 24 inches on either side of utility lines to identify the precise location.

Benefits of Calling 811 before Planting 

Every digging job requires a call to 811, even planting trees, bushes and other landscaping.  If you hit an underground utility line while digging around your yard, you can still cause a power outage, service disruption or injury to yourself and others.

What’s more, there is an important long-term benefit of calling before you do any planting—the prevention of sewer spills. How is that?

When you know the location of sewer lines in your project area, you can avoid planting trees and shrubs directly over them and plant them at least 10 feet away, which is recommended. In this way, you can prevent roots from growing into sewer lines and obstructing them, which can cause sewage to back up into your home and onto your property and to overflow into the street down storm drains and into the ocean.

When you notify DigAlert of your landscaping project, utility personnel can mark the spot where your private sewer line connects to the public sewer system. From that point of connection, you can approximate the path your sewer line takes under your property to your house, and avoid planting over it.

For help locating your sewer line, you might also talk to a licensed plumber or private utility services locator.  Of course, a copy of your building plans could be invaluable in helping identify the location of the sewer line under your property.

In addition, if your yard size is limited, avoid trees with aggressive root systems, even if the trees are native or drought-tolerant, such as the California pepper tree. Remember, when planting any tree, carefully consider its height, width and root size at maturity. You never want a tree to become an expensive and environmental problem because you planted it in the wrong location. For plant information, check (Garden Gallery), (Garden Resources) and (Invasive Plant Guide).

This April, dig safe and plant smart in celebration of Earth Day and National Safe Digging Month.

In an effort to provide our readers with a wide variety of opinions from our community, the DP Times provides Guest Opinion opportunities in which selected columnists’ opinions are shared. The opinions expressed in these columns are entirely those of the columnist alone and do not reflect those of the DP Times or Picket Fence Media. If you would like to respond to this column, please email us at

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