The City of Los Angeles finally faces defeat in its seven-year battle to exempt the Hyperion sewage-treatment plant in El Segundo from the strictest of federal clean-water standards governing the dumping of effluent into Santa Monica Bay. That may be good news, since now the Bradley Administration has committed itself to improvements to Hyperion that will permit full secondary treatment of the 410 million gallons of sewage that it discharges daily into the bay.
The staff of the Regional Water Quality Control Board has recommended against a federal waiver of the secondary-treatment requirement for Hyperion, and the board is expected to agree. In anticipation of that, Deputy Mayor Tom Houston already has asked that the denial specifically lay out the health and environmental hazards posed by the failure to clean up the sewage to the full secondary level. Such a finding will help the city obtain the federal and state financial assistance needed to pay for the plant improvements.
About 25% of the sewage now receives secondary treatment. Only solid waste matter is removed from the other 75% before it is piped five miles out into the bay. The technology is available to treat all the sewage to the point that it could be used for golf course irrigation and other such applications. Any reduction in the amount of poorly treated waste will be good for the bay. And clearly the Hyperion plant, first opened in the 1930s, is overtaxed by the volume of sewage that it must handle.
City officials estimate the cost at Hyperion to be $420 million. Other improvements, including total reconstruction of one aging and overtaxed sewer main, would push the total needed for the system to $1.6 billion over the next eight years. Portions of the system are 60 to 80 years old.
Even with state and federal help, the citizens of Los Angeles can expect some major increases in sewage charges in the coming years to help pay for the improvements. The current average household charge of $5.83 is a bargain compared with many systems. The fee is considerably more in San Diego and Orange counties, and as much as six times higher in San Francisco.
The logical way to finance such capital improvements is through bond issues. But Los Angeles voters have rejected bonding in the past. Without a bond issue, the monthly charge may have to go to about $15. With one, it might be held to $12. The only way Los Angeles will have an adequate sewage-collection and -disposal system is for the citizens to be willing to finance it.
Mayor Tom Bradley's political opponents have accused him of becoming enlightened about the secondary-treatment dilemma only after Gov. George Deukmejian raised it as a potential issue in their expected contest for governor in 1986. While there may be a kernel of truth to that, Bradley's Administration has pushed ahead with other improvements to the Hyperion plant in recent years with what financing was available. Whatever the motives, the city now is headed on the proper course. It deserves strong local, state and federal support in achieving a goal that everyone can agree on: a cleaner Santa Monica Bay.