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Water board to vote on Malibu septic moratorium

No new systems would be allowed and use would have to stop in five years. Payments for a central system would range from $500 to $20,000 a month.

November 03, 2009|Martha Groves

Blaming small-scale septic systems for causing much of the pollution in Malibu's watershed, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will vote Thursday on whether to ban the systems in a large portion of central and eastern Malibu.

Under the proposed moratorium, no new septic systems would be permitted, and owners of existing systems would have to halt wastewater discharges within five years.

Far from a mundane issue, the staff-recommended proposal has prompted heated debate and threats of legal action in Malibu, where almost all homes and businesses rely on septic systems.

Residents in the affected area would be required to pay about $500 a month to cover the cost of hooking into a central sewage system, according to the city's projections. Businesses would face payments of about $20,000 a month for enterprises producing 25,000 gallons of wastewater per day or about $7,000 for those producing 10,000 gallons per day.

Even some residents who believe that a sewer system is long overdue in the city's Civic Center area say the anticipated fees would impose a burden.

"It's like living in a Third World country not to have sewers," said Paul Shoop, a retired lawyer who lives in Malibu Knolls, an enclave of multimillion-dollar homes off curving Malibu Canyon Road. "But nobody wants to pay that sort of exorbitant fee. If we need a sewer system, you expect government to provide that service."

The situation fairly oozes with irony. Malibu incorporated as a city with its own government in 1991 to stave off Los Angeles County's efforts to install a sewer system in the area. Residents feared sewers would unleash a wave of development that would turn bucolic Malibu into Miami Beach West.

The specter of unchecked development still unnerves some residents who value Malibu for its rugged, thinly populated canyons and unobscured ocean views.

Once a sewer is installed in the Civic Center area, "it will branch out," said longtime resident Jeff Chertow.

In Malibu, septic tanks, leach pits and the ubiquitous stench known as the "Malibu smell" are familiar topics. After rainstorms, officials often post signs on Surfrider Beach urging swimmers and surfers to steer clear because of health dangers. Surfrider often gets failing grades on Heal the Bay's annual report cards.

For years, the community has come under increasing pressure from regional, state and federal officials to clean up Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon and Santa Monica Bay.

The proposed ban would cover a large expanse of central and eastern Malibu, stretching along Pacific Coast Highway from Serra Road to Sweetwater Canyon and extending into unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Affected commercial areas would include part of Pepperdine University, city and county buildings, an elementary school and churches. Residential neighborhoods in the area include Malibu Colony, Malibu Road, Serra Retreat, Sweetwater Mesa and Malibu Knolls.

Although the water board has not mandated a particular wastewater treatment method, Malibu officials have decided on a central sewage treatment option.

The city plans to unveil an alternative plan Thursday that would treat sewage in a vastly reduced area and take until 2018 to complete.

In addition, City Manager Jim Thorsen said, the city is considering developing an ordinance for the celebrity-studded Malibu Colony that would require owners to add disinfection units to their systems, at a cost of about $50,000.

Tracy Egoscue, the water board's executive officer, said she had not yet seen a final version of Malibu's counterproposal. But she said the board has long shown a willingness to consider Malibu's interests.

"If I were a gambling woman, I would say there's room for maneuvering," she said.

Seeking some middle ground is Steve Soboroff, a developer who has proposed building a small Whole Foods grocery store in the water board's proposed prohibition zone. In remarks prepared for Thursday's meeting, Soboroff said the water board is feeling pressure to take action now to "punish Malibu for not doing anything for so many years." But he said a moratorium would be a "hammer" with a huge financial and environmental cost.

Better, he said, to have the board's staff, environmental groups and the city agree on a "phased, economically viable plan within 60 days." As a good-faith gesture, he said, the Whole Foods project would pledge $2 million toward a new central system that would be created in phases.

Anticipating a crowd of residents, business owners, lawyers and others opposed to the moratorium, the city plans to offer free bus rides to the water board meeting in downtown Los Angeles.

Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Barovsky defended Malibu, saying the city is committed to cleaning up the water, conducting studies and paying $25 million for a Civic Center property that will serve as a park and storm water treatment plant. Construction on that project, called Legacy Park, recently got underway and is expected to cost at least $10 million.

Finding a way to deal with wastewater has proved more difficult. The City Council last year approved the La Paz shopping complex after the developer agreed to donate two acres for a wastewater treatment plant. But Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental group, sued the city, saying La Paz would pollute the creek, lagoon and ocean. Separately, Baykeeper sued the city over Legacy Park because it did not have a wastewater treatment component.

"It's pretty tough to get things done when we're getting sued for doing it and not doing it," Barovsky said.

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, said the water board has been frustrated because previous efforts to prod Malibu to address the problem did not have the desired result. "Their strongest tool is indeed the moratorium," Gold said.

"Generations of surfers have fought for clean water at Surfrider," Gold said. "This is the first time ever since Malibu became a city that they're growing up and dealing with wastewater."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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