A county environmental health official toured Valley Center on Monday and confirmed that the area "has a very, very serious health problem" and is "sitting on a time bomb" because of sewage contamination in the ground water.
Gary Stephany, deputy director of environmental health in the county Department of Health Services, toured several problem sites, including a health center and the community Post Office, before announcing that the health hazard, which existed when the county imposed a building moratorium in 1980 on more than 4,000 acres on the valley floor, still exists.
High ground water and the valley's hundreds of septic tanks have created a "dangerous situation," Stephany said. His inspection tour Monday located half a dozen sites where water levels have risen above septic system levels, allowing contaminated water to rise to the surface.
Schoolchildren playing in drainage ditches and water puddles could be coming into contact with sewage-contaminated water that could spread gastrointestinal diseases or worse, Stephany said.
While Stephany was touring the area and talking to the Valley Center Rotary Club about the need for sewers in the valley, the Valley Center Municipal Water District board was voting to place two competing sewage-related issues on a special March 22 election ballot.
Call for a Public Vote
One issue, backed by petitions from anti-sewer advocates, calls for a public vote on every major expenditure exceeding $1 million by the water district. The other, proposed by pro-sewer forces, would give the district approval for a proposed $13.5-million sewer system that water board members have already started in order to lift the North County community's seven-year building moratorium.
Stephany, a 24-year veteran of the county Health Department, told the Rotarians "this is your valley and you can do with it what you want," but added that his experience had shown that "there is no other way for rural areas to survive and grow" except to build sewerage systems.
The health official conceded that the county had not done a hydro-geological study of the Valley Center area--"a very expensive procedure"--because the data is not needed to support the county's contention that a health hazard exists in the area.
"In a sense, the Valley Center area is more of a health hazard than the Tijuana River Valley where, at times, 15 million gallons of raw sewage pours through a day," Stephany said. He explained that the sight and smell of the immense sewage spills in the Tijuana River area "keep people away" from the contaminated area, while in Valley Center, the drainage ditches and standing puddles could harbor the same dangerous bacteria without the visual or odorous warnings to keep residents away.
At several sites visited by the Valley Center officials of CARE--Citizens Advocating Responsibility for the Environment--and Stephany, ground-water levels were above the levels of septic leach lines, indicating that sewage water was mingling with the standing water from recent rainfall, Stephany said.
'Potential Time Bomb'
"As far as I am concerned, this valley is sitting on a potential time bomb. It could go off at any time," Stephany said after the tour.
He conceded that no tests of increased cases of gastrointestinal diseases or other sewage-related diseases had been made, explaining that "unless you study each case (of illness) and trace its cause, there is no validity in any such study."
"I have watched other valleys and I know what will happen. In El Cajon, Escondido, San Marcos. Without sewers, these valleys would have died. In the Rainbow Valley (in extreme northeastern San Diego County), the decision against sewers meant the end of the valley."
Stephany criticized anti-sewer factions for "using the health department" to control growth.
'Plan for New People'
"You can't close the door to growth," Stephany said. "So, you had better plan for the new people coming in to San Diego County." Otherwise, he said, the accommodations needed for an increased population will be forced on Valley Center and other communities at a later time "and at a much greater cost."
Craig Johnson, a Valley Center resident who has sued the water district, county, state and federal Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to cancel a $10-million EPA grant for sewer system construction, said Monday that none of the governmental agencies had ever produced evidence that sewage contamination existed in the valley or that an urban sewer system was needed.
"I'm not against sewers," Johnson said, "but I am against a sewer system that will cost so much that there will have to be a massive increase in (Valley Center) population and (building) density in order to pay for it."
He said he would work for the anti-sewer measure on the March 22 election ballot, "which would give the residents here a voice in whether we want to keep our area rural."