Where to put the dirty water?

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The Tapia Wastewater Reclamation Plant releases 16 million gallons of treated wastewater into Malibu Creek per day, except when prohibited May through October. Officials, faced with tighter water quality regulations, are looking for other ways to get rid of the water during those months.

By Leslie Lotto / Special to The Malibu Times

As the Las Virgenes Water District’s permit to release treated wastewater into Malibu Creek from its Tapia facility nears, an almost decade-old proposal to seasonally store reclaimed or recycled water under Ahmanson Ranch, the land that was purchased for a public park, has been brought up again and criticized by environmentalists and the city of Malibu.

The Triunfo Sanitation District and Las Virgenes Municipal Water District jointly operate the Tapia Wastewater Reclamation Plant, which sits along Las Virgenes Creek, and from which overflow goes into Malibu Creek and then down to the ocean outlet at Surfrider Beach.

Reclaimed or recycled water is wastewater that has been treated well enough to be reused but is not clean enough to meet drinking water standards. It is, however, proven safe for plants, and even for human contact with irrigated areas such as parks, playing fields and golf courses.

Since there is an over-abundance of this treated water from Triunfo, there is a need to store it somewhere. At a January meeting of the Triunfo Sanitation District, Chairman Ronald Stark brought up the proposal to store the treated water under Ahmanson, where it would be pumped into the aquifer there, a naturally occurring underground reservoir held by rocks and sand.

In the late 1990s the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a permit stating that water from Tapia could not be discharged into Malibu Creek from April to October each year.

“When that occurs, Surfrider Beach typically gets failing grades,” said Jeff Reinhardt, manager of Customer Service and Public Affairs for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

In 1999, LVMWD conducted a study to see if it would be feasible to store water under Ahmanson Ranch during those prohibition months. (The Ahmanson aquifer is reported to be the closest one to Tapia.)

“Nothing’s been done with the project since that study,” said David Lippman, director of Facilities and Operations for LVMWD.

Lippman said “it’s coming back to the forefront because the Regional Board is about to renew our permit for Tapia.”

Lippman, in a recent interview, said that the permit renewal will most likely come up in July, and there will have to be a plan for the excess water from Tapia.

A senior engineer for Tapia said this idea is low on the list of possibilities.

“Ahmanson is pretty high, you waste energy getting water in and out of there,” Mark Capron, senior engineer of Tapia, said in a telephone interview.

More than energy, what concerns Mark Abramson of the environmental group Heal The Bay is more pollution.

The storage issue “would mess up the creek because treated water has more nutrients and would cause rapid plant growth adding more algae,” Abramson said. “It already has algae problems and nutrient issues. Pumping polluted water into pristine water is a terrible idea. To me, it’s kind of ludicrous in so many ways… it would absolutely be a travesty to do what they’re planning.”

Malibu Mayor Sharon Barovksy agreed with the amount of energy and cost to send the water to Ahmanson. “I can’t conceive of it being financially viable when we can do it here and make it more environmentally logical,” she said. “We’d have to send water across a mountain. We’re hoping to build our own facility to clean waste water for re-use.”

Triunfo’s Sanitation District Board applied to the State Water Resources Control Board for a grant to study the feasibility of using the Ahmanson aquifer and also pipe water over to the Simi Valley aquifer to store water in January of this year.

Ventura County Supervisor and Triunfo Board Member Linda Parks opposes the plan and was the only board member to vote against that grant. She claims tests have been done that show the Ahmanson aquifer contains high levels of perchlorate, a substance that can be used as a rocket fuel oxidizer. Some say it’s under Ahmanson because it neighbors Rocketdyne.

“They shouldn’t be monkeying around with this incredibly contaminated earth,” Parks said.

Parks has been pushing for the Regional Board to have more practiced standards. “One method is to place pipes for irrigation that spray water on the hills along the freeways and at golf courses. It has to go somewhere. It’s a long range solution for sustainable growth, the others have repercussions.”

When Chairman Stark was asked about the potentially poisonous problem in the Ahmanson aquifer he said he had not seen hard evidence in any study of contamination in the aquifer.

Capron agreed, “One sample had showed up with perchlorate, but it was shown to be a false negative.”

“There is very little chance of this happening. We would never do anything to hurt any people or animals or the environment. We’re never going to do anything unless it’s safe,” Stark said. “It’s one of many ideas in where to put reclaimed water for seasonal storage. If we find through substantial lab tests that the water’s contaminated, then we’re not moving forward, right now it’s in limbo.”

As the water district waits to see what new regulations will require, it plans to hold workshops and public information hearings to discuss how to deal with them, which could possibly cost the LVMWD up to $150 million. LVMWD officials say that a new plant might have to be built to meet stricter standards for treated water it releases into Malibu Creek.