Malibu septic permitting deal up for review

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A memorandum of understanding regarding septic discharge permitting is up for review between the city and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board. The board might want control over all commercial permitting.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

In the wake of Malibu’s coastal waters being declared as some of the most polluted in California, city officials were scheduled to meet with members of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board Wednesday morning to discuss potential modifications to a wastewater discharge permitting agreement between the two entities. (The meeting took place before The Malibu Times went to print; a follow-up story will be posted online Wednesday afternoon.)

Upon completion, at an undetermined date, the memorandum of understanding regarding onsite wastewater discharge permitting, with any modification that might be made, will be presented to the city council and the water board for approval and execution.

The MOU was the source of friction last year between the city and the water board, which threatened to terminate it last September after the city decided to handle the wastewater permitting for the first development phase of the Malibu Lumber Yard mall. The city had concluded the mall would generate less than 2,000 gallons of water per day when it opened, because it would not have its two future restaurants. Under the current MOU, the water board issues permits to any development that generates more than 2,000 gallons of wastewater per day.

The city issued the permit with the idea that mall owners and developers Richard Weintraub and Richard Sperber could obtain an additional permit from the water board once the restaurants were ready, but water board staff found this scenario unacceptable and told the city only one permit-from the regional water board-should be issued.

Over objections by Heal the Bay and other environmental organizations, the water board later approved a wastewater discharge permit to Malibu Lumber Yard, without the restaurants in place.

Tempers have since cooled, and city officials are sanguine about any modifications to the MOU.

City Manager Jim Thorsen on Tuesday in a telephone interview said policy requires the city to meet with the water board every five years to discuss the MOU. “We’re looking forward to having a discussion about the MOU and finding out what they’d [the Regional Water Quality Control Board] like to put into it,” he said, adding that the city at this time has not proposed any changes to it.

However, water board staff in an October 2008 report recommended renegotiating it to exclude commercial projects from the city’s authority for wastewater discharge permitting.

“Everyone wants to improve the MOU,” Steve Cain, spokesperson for the Regional Water board, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “It’s [the meeting is] the first discussion and a basic conversation on how improvements can be made to the MOU between the board and the city.”

The water board has been taking an aggressive stance not only with the city but also with local businesses regarding wastewater discharge permits. In April it cited more than three-dozen Malibu businesses and public facilities in the Civic Center area and elsewhere for a variety of alleged violations related to water quality.

The board sent notices of violations after its staff began finding polluted areas while researching whether to prohibit septic tanks within the Civic Center area and require the installation of a centralized wastewater treatment system.

The effectiveness of septic systems in Malibu has been long disputed. Several environmental groups have filed an onslaught of lawsuits accusing the city of water pollution and urging the implementation of a centralized wastewater treatment facility. However, some residents say septic systems, which are utilized by approximately 80 percent of Malibu, are not the cause of pollution in local waterways.

An epidemiology study is currently being conducted at Surfrider Beach by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project to assess the risk of swimming-related illnesses. Malibu City Councilmember Jefferson Wagner on Tuesday in a telephone interview said he hopes the results of the study will “bring the city closer to the source of over saturation of questionable water [quality].”

Meanwhile, the city has allocated $2.1 million of its 2009-2010 fiscal year budget for the Civic Center Wastewater Improvement Plan, a wastewater treatment facility with expected completion in 2013.

However, potential development of the La Paz property on Civic Center Way, where the city intends to implement the centralized wastewater treatment facility, is currently under review by the California Coastal Commission and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Furthermore, environmental group Santa Monica Baykeeper in December sued the city for approving La Paz’s environmental impact report, which, Baykeeper says, fails to evaluate the impacts associated with flooding, water quality and storm water runoff in the Civic Center area.

The city, however, continues to work toward the completion of the $15.6 million, 17-acre Legacy Park in the Civic Center area, which includes a storm water treatment facility. Construction of the park is expected to begin this summer.