Water board bans septics in Malibu

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City officials plan to discuss litigation options, but say that they will wait to see what the state decides on the matter before filing suit.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

Ignoring ardent pleas from Malibu residents and an alternative waste water management plan proposed by city officials, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board last Thursday voted 5-2 to ban septic systems in central and eastern Malibu.

The board’s staff recommended the ban due to its assessment that septic systems are the major cause of pollution in Malibu’s watershed. The decision has infuriated many Malibu citizens and city officials, who say the board’s staff report was based on outdated evidence from the 1980s and ‘90s.

The State Water Resources Control Board must still approve the septic ban before it can be enacted. The city says it will not sue the state board until a final decision is made, and that litigation options will be discussed at the Nov. 23 Malibu City Council meeting.

The prohibition approved 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. Projects that are already underway or in the permitting process will be allowed to install septic systems, but must also meet those deadlines. The regional board could issue fines of up to $10,000 per day or $100 per gallon of wastewater discharged to those who do not comply.

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.

“In order to pay for the wastewater facility, two-thirds of the people who would use it must vote to fund it,” Councilmember Andy Stern said Monday in a telephone interview. “If the vote doesn’t pass, there’s no money to do it. Then what happens? Is the regional board going to tell everyone to get out of their houses? There is little doubt in my mind this will windup in litigation.”

(In a similar situation, during a city workshop last December in La Cañada, Elizabeth Erickson, staff geologist with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, as reported in La Cañada Valley Sun, warned attendees that resistance against forming a sewer district could result in the board issuing “a cease and desist order for every house in town.”)

Hundreds attended Thursday’s 10-hour hearing, which included passionate testimonies for or against the septic ban from environmental group leaders, surfers, Los Angeles County officials, local developers and wastewater experts, among others.

Advocates said enacting a septic ban, regardless of the financial impacts, was the only way to ensure that the city would work toward improving the water quality of Malibu Lagoon, Malibu Creek and Surfrider Beach, which has been continually ranked as one of the most polluted beaches in the state. (Initial plans to build a wastewater treatment facility at Legacy Park were scuttled after the city determined there was not enough land to do so.)

“This is the 54th richest community on the planet,” Joe Melchione, chairman of the Malibu Surfing Association’s environmental committee, said at the hearing. “Cities much poorer than this deal with their water quality issues.”

However, many residents said they could not afford the monthly cost of implementing a centralized wastewater facility, and resented the perception that all who live in Malibu are wealthy.

“I’m not a rich Malibuite … We cannot afford to have another $500 added every month,” Steve Ryan, a Malibu resident who lives outside the septic prohibition area, said at the hearing. “You can’t possibly say that every septic system in that area in Malibu doesn’t work. You’re taking everyone who lives in that area, lining them up against the wall and shooting them without a trial. That’s not fair, it’s not moral, it’s not ethical. People have the right to prove they’re not polluting, and you’re not giving us that right.”

Prior to the hearing date, Malibu officials submitted results of recent city-funded water quality tests that indicated human waste as a small percentage of the overall pollution in the Malibu watershed. But Jeff Ogata, staff counsel for the regional board, said the results would not be included as evidence at the hearing because they were submitted after the Oct. 8 deadline for public comments on the staff report.

City officials say the board’s prohibition plan is technically unfeasible, in part because the available percolation area may not be sufficient to disperse the large quantity of treated wastewater. They expressed disappointment at the board’s rejection of an alternate plan they proposed just days before the hearing, which was supported by Heal the Bay President Mark Gold.

Under the city’s proposed plan, a smaller $30.8 million centralized wastewater treatment facility would be constructed in phases by 2018, and would serve the central core of the Civic Center area, including parcels that contribute to Malibu Creek groundwater. In addition, Malibu Colony homes and two commercial zones along the east side of Malibu Creek and adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway would be required by city ordinance to install disinfection treatments to their existing septic systems.

“If people want to spend $30,000 … for individual septic tanks and they can demonstrate it will be effective, they should be allowed to do that.,” Gold said to the regional board. “To give that flexibility to self-determine, that’s really the whole point here.”

LARWQCB Member Francine Diamond, in response, said, “Though we respect Heal the Bay and Mark Gold, he is not a member of the regional board,” to which numerous audience members cried out, “But Santa Monica Baykeeper is!” in reference to the board’s Executive Officer Tracey Egoscue, who is also the former executive director of environmental group Santa Monica Baykeeper, which has filed multiple lawsuits against the city.