Searching for a pollution solution

There is general agreement among environmentalists, residents and state and city officials that Malibu Lagoon is far from clean, but identifying polluters is still a point of contention.

At issue is the council’s contention that Malibu is being unfairly singled out as a polluter when, it maintains, the Tapia Reclamation Facility in Malibu Creek is the primary polluter, with wildlife and livestock also producing a significant amount of coliform bacteria found in the creek.

Regional Water Quality Control Board officials met with the City Council Monday to seek cooperation in testing septic systems in close proximity to the creek and lagoon.

Although a hydraulic connection between septics and the lagoon has not been proven, RWQCB Executive Officer Dennis Dickerson said there’s “no question” the water in the lagoon and creek is “impaired” and “nearby septic systems have had a direct impact.”

Councilman Tom Hasse took issue with Dickerson over a letter by RWQCB counsel to City Attorney Christi Hogin, which states the septic connection both “is” and “may be” a significant source of pollution.

Representatives of local environmental groups Heal the Bay, Surfrider Foundation, Save Our Coast and BayKeeper said pollution in the surf zone where the creek drains is a primary concern and a public health issue.

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“I don’t think there’s anybody that thinks water quality in the lagoon is acceptable,” said Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay. “Let’s ensure the pollution problem within the watershed be resolved.”

Councilwoman Carolyn Van Horn said the city was already working on monitoring potential pollution from commercial septic systems adjacent to the creek. “It seems to me that the city is walking that path of already looking at all septic systems. I don’t know why we need a mandate from the regional quality board.”

However, implementaion of the city’s proposed dye study was stalled in May when the city refused to grant liability protection to a Colony homeowner who voluntarily agreed to give access for the test.

Councilman Harry Barovsky questioned why the RWQCB is focusing so much attention on fewer than 25 residential septics (on the north side of Malibu Colony) and a few commercial systems close to the lagoon when there are “110 miles of watershed draining into the creek. We still want to know what’s happening upstream.”

Mayor Joan House agreed. “We have hundreds of thousands flushing through Tapia,” she said.

“Tapia is in compliance. It’s one of the best run facilities in the state,” Dickerson responded. “It’s getting to the point where many smaller issues have become a priority in order to resolve the larger water quality problem.”

Rodney Nelson, state senior engineering geologist (RWQCB and EPA), conceded that, “We have no specific information of any particular installation in Malibu that is directly related to the pollution of the lagoon and creek. . . . What we are concerned about is the likelihood.”

The city has already spent about $15,000 of a $60,000 grant on a few monitoring wells at Cross Creek shopping center, which recently completed extensive upgrades to its septic system. Owner Steve Soboroff voluntarily signed a right of access to the property. The rest of that grant money would be required to complete the testing of the commercial sites.

But cooperation from owners of private homes in the area has been more difficult to get, and council members were reluctant to press individual homeowners for access. “I’m not prepared to vote to ask staff to cooperate on investigations of single-family homes,” Hasse said.

Van Horn indicated there was another $81,000 in new money available for the project, but Dickerson said, “The county may repeal that . . . but by means of cooperation, it opens avenues.” He added the city would not bear the brunt of the cost for the study.

Senior Building Inspector Craig George reported city staff is pursuing new guidelines for commercial and multifamily septic systems. “Ideally, we’ll bring an ordinance to the council at its last meeting in August,” he said.

The council voted 5-0 to submit to RWQCB a work plan for the study of commercial and multifamily septic systems along the creek.

Dickerson called it a “strong first step,” but added, “I don’t know that it will satisfy the board,” indicating the time required for council approval (estimated at 90 days) was too long.

House said a plan to study single-family homes in the Colony would have to include rebidding a contract and scoping project and looking for monies to fund the study.

Barovsky said the city wanted to host a meeting of all agencies involved in the watershed sometime in October or November “to address the philosophy in the watershed and Tapia, to get everyone on board. I’m convinced it’s not coming from a few septics.”

Eron Ben-Yehuda contributed to this story.

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