Malibu’s ‘Zuma Jay’ clarifies septic ban support


The Mayor Pro Tem says the city needs to move forward in efforts to clean local waters.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

Having come under fire for his support of the septic ban approved by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board last month, Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson Wagner this week clarified his reasons for endorsing the ban and implementing a sewer in the Civic Center area.

Wagner’s views were first publicly aired in a Nov. 15 column by Steve Lopez published in The Los Angeles Times, in which he called Malibu residents opposed to the ban “a bunch of hypocrites” for advocating to clean up the pollution at Surfrider Beach, and Malibu creek and lagoon during the past two decades, but failing to fund the cause. Meanwhile, the city has been sued multiple times by the environmental groups Santa Monica Baykeeper and the National Resource Defense Council over violations of water quality standards in those areas.

“If we’re out here saying we’ve been doing the most for clean water over the past 20 years, we’re being hypocrites,” Wagner said Monday in a phone interview. “It may be a tough term for some people to swallow, but I don’t care. We can find a number of excuses not to do this, but we’re going to be in the same place 20 years from now. If I’m at odds with [City Manager] Jim Thorsen and [Councilmember] Andy Stern, so be it. But there’s a new guy in town and he says let’s move forward.”

The regional water board approved the ban due to its assessment that septic systems are the major cause of pollution in Malibu’s watershed, which has frequently received “F” grades in water quality tests by Heal the Bay.

But some city officials and residents argue that there is no evidence that leaky septic tanks are the leading contaminant, and list other sources-such as the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility, located on Malibu Canyon Road, and the Malibu Mesa Wastewater Reclamation Plant, a tertiary wastewater treatment plant located on Pepperdine University land-as top contributors.

Preliminary results of several water quality tests recently funded by the city have found no human pathogens in local waters, and indicate that bacteria from wild animal excrement and kelp may be significant pollutants, Mayor Sharon Barovsky said Tuesday.

Although Wagner believes septic systems are responsible for one-third of the pollution, he said, “ … contributing to this is that the water that’s treated at Tapia goes down Malibu Creek and into Malibu Lagoon. It’s nutrient-rich.”

Jackie Gamble, a management analyst at Tapia, on Monday said, “We think the water we put out there is the cleanest water in Malibu Lagoon. We take a lot of care to make sure we don’t discharge water that can push pathogens downstream.”

Tapia has been charged with violating water discharge amounts in past years.

Wagner said he’d like the city to establish receiving water standards from Tapia (which treats sewage from the cities of Agoura, Westlake, Calabasas, and Hidden Hills, among others) and Malibu Mesa wastewater plants, both of which discharge into Malibu Creek. “Despite what Tapia says, whatever they’re releasing is coming into our jurisdiction and we are responsible in the eyes of the NRDC for what comes out of Tapia and what comes out of Pepperdine,” Wagner said. “If we had clean water standards we could tell Pepperdine and Tapia ‘thou shall not dump in our city.’”

City Manager Thorsen on Monday said the city is not authorized to establish receiving water standards, and that only the state and the Environmental Protection Agency can do so.

Negative impacts expected

from ban

The State Water Resources Control Board must still approve the septic ban before it can be enacted. The city has said it will not sue until a final decision is made, and expects the state board will hold a hearing to vote on the matter within the next two to six months.

Many are anticipating the negative impacts the septic ban could have on Malibu’s residential and commercial real estate markets, and some say the mere threat of it has already injured market values. Wagner said a lawsuit would only prolong the real estate slump, and that the implementation of a sewer in the broader Civic Center area would stabilize the real estate market and increase beachfront property values by improving ocean water quality.

The prohibition ratified by the regional board includes an end to future permitting of septic systems in the commercial areas of the Civic Center and the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway from Serra Road to Sweetwater Canyon, as well as the residential areas of Malibu Colony, Malibu Road, Serra Retreat, Sweetwater Mesa and the Malibu Knolls. Current septic systems in commercial areas must be phased out by 2015, and those in residential areas by 2019. Permitted projects that are already underway will be allowed to install septic systems, but must also meet those deadlines.

With the regional board’s plan, the city projects that 425 residential parcels would have to pay between $400 and $500 per month, and 45 business parcels would have to pay between $6,800 and $17,000 per month to help finance an estimated $52 million centralized wastewater treatment facility capable of treating 600,000 gallons per day.

Numerous residents have said they could not afford the monthly costs and resent the perception that all who live in Malibu are wealthy.

Wagner on Monday said the estimated $52 million cost of the wastewater facility might not be accurate because the city has not yet explored others in the $30 million range. He also recommended the deadline for compliance be extended to at least eight to 10 years to allow time to form an assessment district, a ballot measure, funding and an environmental impact report.

Despite his reasoning, many have questioned whether Wagner would still support the ban, and the hefty costs associated with the implementation of the wastewater facility, if his residence or business (Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop) were located within the septic ban zone.

Wagner responded that he has a 20-year lease (that expires in 2025) as master concessionaire of Malibu Pier, which is included in the prohibition boundary.