Tapia wastewater issue heats up meeting

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A proposal to send treated wastewater from the local reclamation facility to the L.A. River concerns water board members. Surfers say the water, which is currently discharged into Malibu Creek, is responsible for pollution at Surfrider Beach.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

It was upstream versus downstream last week when the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board grappled with the issue of treated wastewater discharged by the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility into Malibu Creek- water that some say contributes to pollution at Surfrider Beach.

After a day-long hearing in a packed room on Sept. 1, the board put off a decision until Oct. 6 on a proposal to force major changes at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s Tapia facility. Board members voiced serious concerns with staff proposals to divert Tapia outflow from Malibu Creek to the Los Angeles River.

Tapia’s 80,000 customers in the Conejo Valley and Calabasas may be on the hook for a $160 million upgrade to remove nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from its otherwise clean discharge into Malibu Creek, said Tapia plant operators.

And that would be worth every penny, said surfers who say they have seen friends suffer from infections that doctors blame on tainted water flushed into California’s premiere surf break.

In the middle is the regional water board staff, which has recommended that Tapia discharge water-which plant official say is clean enough to drink-should be pumped over to the Los Angeles River. But at Thursday’s public hearing, Los Angeles County officials warned shifting the water to another watershed might not be legal.

“If this water is so pure, send it back up to Tapia and let them drink it,” asserted Malibu surfer Joe Melchione, waving a bottle of algae-laden water from Malibu Creek and adding no one should be subjected to the same slimy water that surfers contend with.

“I’ll drink that water!” shouted Charley Caspary, a Los Virgenes Municipal Water District board member, standing up across the room. Melchione threw the bottle to Caspary, sending the meeting into chaos.

It took Caspary a few moments to realize the water was full of algae from the creek, not the tertiary-treated water from the sewage plant, which meets drinking water standards. But Caspary promised to bring bottles of drinkable effluent to the next board meeting.

Emotions ran high at the meeting, with Conejo Valley residents and business owners testifying they could not afford the $10,000-per-user cost of removing all the nitrogen from the otherwise clean Tapia water.

“We would see a tripling of our sewer rates, and that money would come directly from our classrooms,” said Donald Zimring, Los Virgenes Unified School District deputy superintendent.

He predicted the sacrifice of eight teachers to pay for increased sewage fees.

“The pollution is not coming from Tapia, it is coming from the lagoon,” said Agoura Hills resident David Mormon. “Less than one percent of the nitrates come from Tapia.”

But Joe Sanders, who has surfed at the Surfrider’s break for 39 years, said the precise problem is that the Tapia water flows into the lagoon, where it picks up bird waste. Those contaminants seep into Surfrider, the county’s most polluted and most famous surfing beach.

“That lagoon used to dry out every summer hard enough so that a car could be driven over it,” Sanders said. “Since Tapia has been discharging water down that creek, I haven’t seen it dry for three decades.”

The water board’s staff disagrees on the $160 million price tag, and says Tapia can divert much of its discharge to Los Angeles as proposed shifting much of that effluent through a new pipeline to the Los Angeles River at Chatsworth.

But no one had asked Los Angeles about that. Officials at the county Department of Public Works, which operates the L.A. River flood control system, testified that downstream users and the federal government will likely object to treated water being disposed down the river from Chatsworth and into the ocean at Long Beach.

Even water board members had problems with that staff recommendation. “

We’re concerned that you want to send one problem to another water basin,” said board member Mary Ann Lutz.

Water board staff will have until the next meeting, Oct. 6, to answer a slew of questions from board members about how they are actually proposing to clean up Tapia’s contribution to Malibu Creek. Board member H. David Nahai said they have their work cut out for them.

“I think the public is confused,” he said.

“And even if they thought they weren’t confused, they should be.”