After nearly a year of study and often-heated debate, the committee researching alternative sewer plans for Malibu on Tuesday night approved a recommendation for a $34-million disposal system that would allow a majority of residents to continue using septic tanks.
The committee's action is a major development in the 20-year battle by Los Angeles County to build sewers in Malibu. A majority of residents and landowners have resisted efforts by Los Angeles County to construct any sewer system in Malibu, saying it would spur unwanted and haphazard development along the coast. The resistance has also spurred a continuing effort to incorporate Malibu as a city.
However, the committee's proposal may be more palatable to residents because it would cost at least $50 million less than the regional sewer plan recommended by county officials last year and would reduce the installation time from years to months.
The recommendation, which will be sent to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week, calls for the construction of a small-scale sewer system in Malibu's Civic Center area and a septic tank effluent pumping system that would carry waste water from troubled landslide areas, such as Big Rock Mesa and other sites, to a central disposal plant near the Civic Center.
"I think it's a very positive and viable recommendation, and I'm quite pleased with it," said committee member Fred Zepeda. "I look at it as just slightly less (difficult) than what (Olympic gold medalist Greg) Louganis did on his final dive."
The 11-member committee, composed of local citizens, merchants and large property owners in the Malibu area, also recommended that a special district be created to run the sewer system. The district, which would be styled after similar boards in Stinson Beach and Sea Ranch in Northern California, would be made up of locally-elected officials.
An environmental impact report and an engineering study of the committee's proposal already are under way. No public hearings will be convened until the report is completed. However, several committee members plan to make a public presentation to supervisors on the panel's recommendation. The presentation is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 18.
County supervisors still must approve any sewer system in the area as long as Malibu remains unincorporated. It remains unclear if the sewer recommendation would affect the supervisors' decision on when to place the Malibu cityhood measure on the ballot. Cityhood backers fear that the supervisors may try to delay a cityhood election until final sewer plans are approved. A hearing on the incorporation election is scheduled for Nov. 3.
It would be left to supervisors to decide how to finance the proposed sewer system. The committee studied several options, including issuing assessment bonds. According to the engineering studies done by private consultants for the committee, residents who opt to maintain an on-site disposal system could face payments between $2,000 and $73,000, depending on the condition of their septic tanks.
The committee's recommendation would allow Malibu residents to continue using septic systems that work well or can be improved. In the landslide areas, where the high groundwater is believed to contribute to slides, residents would use a septic tank effluent pumping system (STEP).
The STEP system would require placing a plastic pipe, about 12 inches in diameter, about 3 feet underground along both sides of Pacific Coast Highway from Tuna Canyon to the Civic Center. The pipes would carry the effluent from the hillside septic tanks into the same treatment plant that would handle the sewage from Civic Center business and restaurants and excess waste water from Pepperdine University.
The committee recommended that the size of the sewer system, which would have a capacity of about 2 million gallons per day, not promote growth beyond the limits outlined in the Local Coastal Plan for Malibu. In addition, the panel said that the effluent from the STEP system should be used for spray irrigation or have some other "viable reuse."
Although some county officials have balked at the STEP system because it requires more maintenance than a conventional sewer system, the committee recommended it because the start-up costs are much lower and it would only take a few months to install the pipes along traffic-choked Pacific Coast Highway.
"In general, I think it's a very good plan as long as it's understood that this is just an outline for how to proceed and not a final document that defines the entire system," said committee member John Sibert. "This is just the first big hurdle."