Environmentalists and surfers claimed at least a partial victory last week when the Regional Water Quality Control Board placed further restrictions on Tapia Water Reclamation Facility’s discharge permit.
The board took testimony at a public hearing Dec. 9 from representatives of Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council, Santa Monica BayKeeper and the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which operates Tapia.
Although the environmental groups sought the extension of Tapia’s discharge prohibition period to March 1 through November, the board voted to increase the period by only two weeks in spring and two weeks in the fall.
The district, meanwhile, had hoped to reduce the restrictions to its permit. Instead, the new “dry-season” period was extended to April 15 through Nov. 15. The previous prohibition covered the period from May 1 through Oct. 31, but was flexible to allow discharge when the sand berm separating Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach is “naturally” breached, either by high tides or rain-swollen creek flows.
The berm serves as a sand filter that screens out bacteria and other pollutants found in the lagoon, preventing contamination of Malibu’s famed Surfrider Beach. When the berm is closed, the water quality in the surf zone is generally graded A. When the berm is open, the ratings drop to F.
The regional board also imposed stricter nutrient limits for Tapia’s discharge, as recommended by the state board. Existing 13 mg per liter for nitrates was reduced to 8 mg/L. High nutrient levels cause excessive algae blooms that deplete oxygen levels in the lagoon. The board also instructed staff to come back in six months with recommendations for appropriate standards for phosphate levels.
“It was an absolute surprise to us,” said Norm Buering, the district’s resource conservation director, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The regional board staff said keeping district water out of the creek for that 6-month period negates concern about nitrates. We came prepared to support the staff recommendation.
“It’s an extremely difficult process for us and it will be difficult for us to comply,” Buering said. “The current plant performance level is 13 mg/L. By 2002 we were to reach 10 mg/L. To meet that goal we did a pilot study, built temporary baffles out of wood. We wanted to get it below 8 mg/L because we have a current permit to allow discharge into the L.A. River during certain times of year. After about four months of trying, we were able to reach 8 mg, but with colder weather and higher volume, the biological process might not be as effective.”
The district faces another problem in that the pilot plant was temporary and not designed to operate 24 hours a day. “There appears to be no time allowed to meet this standard. To have to instantly get to eight, we don’t think that’s reasonable. It would probably take two years to build a permanent facility that would give the reliability required for the permit.”
Tapia’s permit was updated in 1998 when the board agreed to certain exemptions to the fixed prohibition on discharge into the creek during dry season months, allowing discharge when the sand berm is breached.
Environmentalists complain Tapia can force the berm to remain open by releasing more effluent to maintain high water levels in the creek.
“They have maintained such unnaturally high water levels in the creek, it would seem to be impossible to determine what would constitute a ‘natural’ breaching. When the berm was closed, and they could not discharge, they over-irrigate upstream, allowing gravity and runoff to do the work for them,” said Jeff Duclos, co-chair of Surfrider’s Malibu Chapter, at the hearing.
During the dry season, the water district sells Tapia’s reclaimed water for irrigation.
Duclos asked the board to officially reprimand the district for its actions “on or near the early morning hours of Veterans Day when it released 10 million gallons of effluent down the creek, breaching the berm and releasing a stew of dangerous pollutants into the surf zone.”
“That simply is not true,” Buering said. “Although we had a right to discharge on Nov. 1, we continued to avoid discharge into creek. But when rain caused our irrigation customers to shut off their systems, we had only the ability to use 75 percent within the watershed. Two or three days after the rain, we had to release about 2.5 million gallons per day for four days. That was not a massive release.”
Malibu physician Jeff Harris called for the board to extend the prohibition from March 1 to Nov. 30, when swimmers and surfers use the beach consistently. “Allowing the sand berm to form naturally as soon as possible protects the public’s health. When water flows without natural filtration through the breached berm, it has repeatedly been shown to be polluted with high bacteria, parasite and viral germs,” he wrote. “You can and should make a significant difference to ensure the public’s health at this beach.” Harris’ testimony was read into the record by Bill Parr.
Under terms of the new ruling, exemptions to the prohibition are restricted to storm events and must be authorized by the regional board’s executive officer.