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Malibu leader with a mission

November 15, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

If Matthew, Mark, Luke or John were alive and still writing, Malibu would definitely get a mention in an updated version of the Bible. There'd be a parable about a blessed place of heavenly natural beauty attracting people who foul their nest, introducing pollution to paradise.

In the absence of those four sages, there is Zuma Jay, a surf shop owner and city councilman who is about to become mayor of Malibu. Zuma Jay believes it's time to quit fighting the state, enter the current century and install sewers to replace septic tanks that are threatening to turn the Malibu coast into a giant commode. He doesn't expect his position to be popular with residents and other city officials.

"I'm going to be sitting alone. I'll be taking the bullets. I'll get chastised at City Council meetings," Zuma Jay said.

That's not his real name, by the way. But most people, including the Malibu city manager, refer to Jefferson Wagner as Zuma Jay or just plain Jay. Will he be Mayor Wagner or Mayor Zuma Jay? Either way, he's an interesting fellow with an unusual bio, even by coastal California standards.

Zuma Jay is an explosives expert, a surfing legend, a stunt man and former model, not to mention a Clint Eastwood look-alike. He once was bitten on the thumb by a shark while diving and is proud of the scar. So in a funky one-of-a-kind outpost like Malibu, he probably should have been mayor long ago.

One day last week, I stopped into Jay's shop and found him reading a City Hall press release on plans to fight a ruling earlier this month by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which called for phasing out septic tanks in portions of central and eastern Malibu over the next 10 years.

"The city of Malibu has a strong history of protecting the environment," said the press release, quoting Mayor Andy Stern. "The regional board's septic ban is like a doctor operating on the wrong arm."

An interesting claim, given the numerous pollution- related lawsuits against Malibu over the years by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper.

I asked City Manager Jim Thorsen to explain the city's position.

Malibu, he told me, believes it already has in place a more economically feasible and scientifically sound plan. The water board's septic moratorium zone is too large, he said, and he cited two studies suggesting it's not entirely clear that septic tank leaching is responsible for the notorious levels of pollution at Surfrider and other beaches, which often get grades of F from Heal the Bay.

Thorsen said one study found that the bacteria may come from a naturally occurring high tide phenomenon involving kelp. And he noted that the city has already spent millions on storm-water treatment, with millions more committed to a planned wastewater plant, though it would be less than half the size of the one the water board believes is necessary.

Even by phone, I knew that Mark Gold of Heal the Bay was rolling his eyes when I relayed what Thorsen had said.

"The state had no choice but to make this a requirement," Gold said of the septic moratorium. "After 18 years of Malibu saying it was going to solve the problem, it hasn't solved the problem." He noted that evidence of human pathogens and viruses have been detected in Malibu Lagoon since the early 1990s.

Back at Zuma Jay's shop, I played devil's advocate and asked if it was unreasonable to ask residents -- not all of whom are millionaires and billionaires -- to pay an estimated $500 a month for a sewage hookup, with merchants paying thousands more to finance a treatment facility that could cost $50 million.

First off, Jay said, nobody knows the true cost yet, and he suspects there's a lot of exaggeration going on. His shop is outside the septic ban zone, but his house is not, and if he has to go from about $100 a month for septic pumping to $500 a month in wastewater fees, so be it, Jay said.

"I'll have to raise the price of T-shirts, keep employees at $10 an hour, wear my jeans longer and drive my car longer. Heck, I'm driving an '89 Dodge Caravan as it is."

As a surfer who's gotten sick from the water many times and knows many other surfers who've had serious illnesses, he's convinced septic tanks are at least part of the problem.

"Anyone can rent a scientist to tell you what you want to hear," he said, but the pollution is worst where homes and businesses are concentrated close to the water. What does that tell you?

Storms gather behind his blue eyes when he talks about how a community with numerous wealthy, high-profile residents -- many of whom consider themselves environmentalists -- has fought against doing the right thing for years, arguing over the cost or suggesting that a modern sewage treatment plant will encourage more development.

"A bunch of hypocrites," he said.

But Zuma Jay hopes to develop some diplomacy skills so he can win converts instead of making enemies.

He guesses the city is headed for litigation over the water board order.

Business as usual, he said, and a waste of time and money.

A septic ban is inevitable, Jay believes, and it's also the morally responsible course. His mission is to convince colleagues to work harder and negotiate a ban with a more acceptable zone and implementation time frame.

The water is fouled, said Councilman Zuma Jay, soon to be Mayor Zuma Jay. And he was elected to lead.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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