Study: Overhaul of Malibu water system to cost $266 million

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Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky speaking in 2012 at the Malibu State of the City Address. Yaroslavsky and the county Board of Supervisors in 2011 ordered the county Public Works Department to prepare a long-range development plan to overhaul Waterworks District 29, which brings water to Topanga and most of Malibu. 

Nearly two years after the county board of supervisors ordered a long-range capital improvement master plan to replace Malibu and Topanga’s aging and decrepit water system, the returns are starting to come in.

An engineering study completed in December by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works estimates that replacing dilapidated pipes and other equipment in Waterworks District 29 would cost $266.5 million. A majority of the costs, $209 million, would go toward overhauling Malibu’s water system. Topanga’s overhaul is estimated at $52 million, with $5.5 million covering “miscellaneous” costs, according to the report.

“The aging water system infrastructure coupled with unique topography of the region caused the cost for operations and maintenance to be higher than other districts,” according to an executive summary of the plan prepared by the Department of Public Works.

The study assumes the overhaul would take place over 22 years, from 2013 to 2035, although the start date is not believed to be accurate. The plan is not expected to be released to the public until the summer, according to Greg Even, a senior civil engineer with the county Department of Public Works.

The study was commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors in May 2011, one year after the fire department enacted what critics call a de facto building moratorium in Malibu when it began enforcing existing requirements that had been disregarded for years, allowing Malibu property owners to build despite strict water flow requirements, as long as they built onsite water tanks to fight fires. A fire official told The Malibu Times then that a study showed the increased building was “undermining the integrity of the water system.”

The master plan entails a comprehensive overhaul of District 29, servicing unincorporated Topanga and most of Malibu. Much of the system was built around 1960, Even said, and does not meet the county’s current fire protection water demands. While they now have a price tag, county and city officials are hesitant to suggest how the massive undertaking will be funded.

Susan Nissman, a senior field deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, confirmed that while the engineering study portion of the revamp is complete, much work remains to be done before a funding plan is presented to local ratepayers.

“While the ‘technical’ plan is complete, the process we embarked on is not and we now need to meet with key stakeholders to discuss bringing [the plan] to the public,” Nissman said.

Those stakeholders form part of a task force assembled by the Public Works department in 2011 at Yaroslavsky’s direction. The task force includes officials from District 29, the L.A. County Fire Department, the City of Malibu Public Works Department, local business interests including the Malibu Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors, and two community members from Topanga and Malibu.

According to a presentation given to the task force in October 2012, potential funding options include municipal bonds, user rate hikes, federal and state grants, and a connection fee for developers who wish to hook up to the new system.

Richard Sherman, a local wastewater contractor who has studied the Malibu/Topanga system for decades and who currently sits on the task force, sees little hope of getting the public to agree to fund the overhaul with something like a bond measure, which would require two-thirds approval from voters.

“It seems that the only time anything gets done is when we have a catastrophe like a wildfire,” Sherman said. “Without that, it’s very improbable that you would get 66 percent of the people within the district to vote for improvements.”

Most of the expenses—$152.5 million—would pay for pipeline replacements.

Malibu’s main source of water, a 30-inch pipeline, traverses roughly 35 miles from its origin point in Santa Monica, through the Pacific Palisades and Topanga, then down Pacific Coast Highway to its westernmost feed in Malibu, at Leo Carrillo State Beach near PCH and Mulholland Highway.

The pipeline runs on the ocean side of PCH throughout Malibu, narrowing to an 18-inch diameter near Webb Way and PCH, down to 16 inches near Zuma Beach and 14 inches near Encinal Canyon Road.

The system is similar to a tree, with a number of lines branching off and pumping up into the Malibu canyons, Even said. The tree system is a risk, Even said, because one dent to the trunk can cut off the livelihood of all its branches.

“If there’s any break in the [main] system, those branch components can’t receive water from the main source,” Even said.

Sherman put a break in the system into plainer terms.

“It’d be like cutting off your leg,” Sherman said. “You can’t function much without one of your legs.”

A timeline of the plan’s breakdown by the Public Works Department plots the start date as 2013 and estimates the final phase of the five-part plan will be done in 2035, assuming the project is approved and funded.

Reva Feldman, Malibu’s assistant city manager, said actual construction work is still far off, because on top of needing city and county approval, Public Works needs to complete an Environmental Impact Report before work gets underway.

“Realistically, it’s a year and a half out,” Feldman said.