Compromise made for treated water released into Malibu Creek

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After a contentious hearing over whether treated wastewater being released into Malibu Creek should be diverted elsewhere, a plan has been proposed to reduce nitrates in the released water.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Local water quality regulators released a compromise plan for cleaning up the millions of gallons of treated sewage water poured daily into Malibu Creek.

And despite a contentious public hearing last September that had surfers and commercial interests from the Conejo Valley, Agoura Hills and Calabasas nearly at each others throats, both sides said they are happy with the compromise.

If adopted, the regulations will allow owners of the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility to avoid building a costly additional sewage treatment plant to remove nitrates and the pollutants from the creek, which drains into Malibu Lagoon and the ocean at Surfrider Beach.

Tapia owners said it could cost its users $160 million to comply with clean water regulations proposed last summer. Instead, Tapia will instead have to spend about $10 million to make relatively minor adjustments to the plant, located in Malibu Canyon near Piuma Road.

“It won’t put an end to the Malibu Lagoon problem,” said Las Virgenes Municipal Water District facilities director David Lippman. “But then, neither would spending $150 million.

“And that means the resources of the community can be diverted to other initiatives to address the problem.”

LVMW owns the Tapia plant, along with the Triunfo Sanitation District. It treats more than 10 million gallons of sewage daily from the 80,000 residents it serves along the 101 Freeway corridor from Calabasas to Westlake Village. Most of the reclaimed water is used for landscaping, but during wet weather periods, its cleaned water is dumped into Malibu Creek.

That water, which is cleaned up to swimming pool standards, flows into Malibu Lagoon, where it picks up biological contamination from birds and other sources and festers. That water either seeps or flows into the Pacific Ocean at Surfrider Beach, causing chronic pollution and frequent illness among surfers.

Clean water groups also voiced optimism that Tapia will promise to meet federal water standards aimed at reducing nitrates, which act as fertilizer for algae and disease-causing pathogens, in the creek, Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

“The plant is committing to meet an eight-milligram per liter standard on nitrates,” said Heather Hecker, director of science and biology for Heal the Bay. “That is a big step that they could have taken seven years ago.”

Alan Reid, chairman of the Malibu chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, also said the revised Tapia pollution permit is probably the best he could hope for.

“We feel the facility should never have been designed to send water into Malibu Creek in the first place,” he said. “But that has been done, and now we’re faced with the reality that it’s here and this is probably as clean as we can get it.”

Reid said the surfers association feels Tapia will make a good faith effort to divert as much reclaimed water as possible out of Malibu Creek into recycling efforts.

“The main problem is not that its unclean water, it’s clean,” he said. “The problem is that this clean water is adding to the flow of the creek.”

Reid said the Surfrider Foundation is more concerned with septic tank-caused pollution generated by businesses and houses in the Malibu Colony and Serra Retreat area, which are suspected of being the source for most of the pollution at Malibu Lagoon and water at Surfrider Beach.

“Our big push right now is to show everyone near the Colony that it is important that they hook up to the sewer that the city is proposing,” Reid said.

Malibu is considering a centralized treatment facility for homes and businesses near the Civic Center that city officials hope will significantly reduce the chronic pollution levels at Surfrider, one of the world’s most famous surfing breaks.

The estimated $10 million improvements at Tapia will pay for new bubbling systems to convert some of the nitrates in the otherwise clean water into nitrogen, which is harmless. Some of that construction is underway, but other projects will need to be designed, receive coastal permits and be built. Lippman said it would take until 2010 to go through all those steps.

The new revision will force Tapia to reduce its nitrate discharges to the creek beginning in 2011, after permits are obtained and construction of new facilities is finished. Tapia also promises to monitor creek pollutant levels, further reduce dry-weather disposal of treated water to the creek, and dump as much water as possible through its existing small pipeline into the Los Angeles River.

The regional water board will vote on the proposed staff recommendation at its next meeting on Nov. 3 in Simi Valley.