A Mess in Malibu

a victim of civic foot-dragging

Malibu Lagoon: a victim of civic foot-dragging

Malibu’s history is inextricably linked with celebrities, natural disasters, a gorgeous coastline and … sewage problems.  In fact, Malibu became a city when L.A. County tried to force a huge sewage treatment plant in undeveloped Corral Canyon down residents’ throats.  Yet here we are 17 years later and Malibu has yet to seriously address the sewage water quality problems that continue to plague the Civic Center area.

The chronic pollution problems at world-class Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Lagoon are likely going to come to a head at the next Regional Water Board meeting, on Nov. 20. And the potential for a big-time scolding of Malibu for its failure to effectively manage its sewage is extremely high. Furthermore, the city’s foot-dragging on the proposed buildout of  a centralized water treatment facility has left me and many other environmental leaders convinced that an integrated solution to Malibu’s pollution problems will be delivered many years in the future, if at all.

The environmental community has been there for Malibu on so many issues over the years, including helping to raise funds for land acquisition, runoff treatment facilities and septic system studies.  In addition, enviros spearheaded successful efforts to get the regional Water Board to prohibit the Tapia Water Recycling Facility from discharging treated sewage into Malibu Creek, mitigating a major pollution source in the lagoon and at Surfrider.  But all of that help has yet to be rewarded with improved water quality. World-class Surfrider Beach continues to get Ds and Fs on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card and Malibu Lagoon has major water quality problems stemming from high nutrient levels from nearby septic systems.

To give Malibu some credit,  city officials did manage the study that demonstrated the negative effects that the Civic Center and Serra Retreat septic systems have on Malibu Lagoon, and they also toughened up their ordinances for new on-site wastewater treatment systems.  Unfortunately, a study doesn’t clean up pollution and an ordinance targeting new sources doesn’t eliminate existing pollution problems. So where are we now?

The city has made numerous unfulfilled promises to upgrade wastewater treatment systems since the innovative wastewater management Warshall Report came out in 1993.  The city’s total annual operating budget of $25 million a year (not including grants and FEMA payments) is comical for a city of 13,000 people.  For perspective, Santa Monica has a $524 million budget for 85,000 people, so one would expect a city of Malibu’s size and wealth to have at least a $50 million budget.  There are probably a hundred houses in Malibu that are worth more than the city’s current annual budget.

In order to address the fiscal gap, Heal the Bay has been pushing unsuccessfully for a watershed management utility to fund and manage Malibu’s wastewater, stormwater and drinking water for five years.  A watershed management utility would allow the city to generate a constant revenue stream to manage water, wastewater and stormwater on a citywide basis. In Santa Monica and Los Angeles, property owners pay for stormwater, sewage and water supply, but Malibu only has separate funding for water use.

The Legacy Park project in the Civic Center gave the environmental community hope that Malibu was finally growing up and addressing its sewage treatment needs.  Legacy Park, located on site of the annual Chili Cookoff, was promised to be the stormwater and sewage pollution panacea for the Malibu Civic Center area. Malibu raised $25 million to purchase the parcel.  Early conceptual plans for the 10-acre parcel included a treatment wetland for stormwater and treated wastewater, but the current version has no treatment wetland and, more importantly, no wastewater treatment or storage.

I sit on the city’s Legacy Park Technical Advisory Committee and we had numerous meetings over the last two years that focused on a new sewage treatment/water recycling plant for the city.  Unfortunately, despite opposition from the environmental community, the final EIR for Legacy Park did not include an analysis for the proposed central water recycling plant.  I’ve been at half a dozen meetings where City Manager Jim Thorsen made it clear that the city was planning to build the civic center water recycling plant by 2011. But Malibu’s omission of the facility in the Legacy Park EIR and subsequent failure to release any sort of action plan to build the facility does not bode well for a comprehensive solution to Malibu’s many water quality problems.

At this point, the environmental and surfing communities have lost all patience on the issue.  The Surfrider Foundation, Malibu Surfing Assn., Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay have met numerous times in the last few months to initiate a “Save the Bu” campaign. We all agree that there should be a wastewater system moratorium in the Civic Center area until Malibu comes up with a legally binding plan for a centralized water recycling facility.

The “Save the Bu” efforts were instrumental in getting the Malibu City Council to take a hard look at the draft-EIR for the La Paz project, a proposed large commercial development with a Whole Foods and a new Malibu City Hall next to Malibu Creek.  Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich came up with a smart suggestion to substitute the water recycling plant for the proposed City Hall as part of the project, an idea that is getting looked at seriously.  In addition, the Planning Commission responded to the “Save the Bu” coalition’s testimony by postponing EIR approval for the Legacy Park project to a later date.  Planning Commissioner Regan Schaar, who jointly came up with the La Paz concept with the mayor, was instrumental in asking for further work on the Legacy Park EIR to add a wastewater component to the document.

The development of the old Malibu Lumber Yard adds another wrinkle to Civic Center mess. The project, located a stone’s throw from the lagoon and currently under construction, has nowhere to legally put its wastewater.   How could a project without a wastewater discharge permit proceed with construction?  The answer is complicated.

Malibu officials have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Regional Water Board that gives the city the authority to issue discharge permits to single-family homes and small commercial developments.  The Regional Board correctly determined that Malibu Lumber development did not fall under the MOU because the overall development will produce 17,000 gallons per day of sewage.  Malibu disagreed and decided to permit the on-site wastewater treatment system on its own, claiming that the first phase of the development only produced 2,000 gallons per day of sewage.

From the environmental community perspective, no sewage should be allowed in the ground there because of the existing pollution problems at Surfrider and the Lagoon.  So despite the fact that Malibu Lumber is proposing to build a state-of-the-art on-site treatment system with disinfection and nitrogen removal, the local groundwater is so contaminated with nutrients and fecal bacteria that any new source of water to the aquifer could negatively impact the creek and lagoon.

What was Malibu’s big motivation to approve the permit for the lumber yard’s on-site sewage treatment system?  Malibu is the landlord for the property and the city gets revenue from the businesses at the lumber yard, which helps pay for the Legacy Park project.  In other words, without completion of the development, Malibu can’t pay for plans to build and operate Legacy Park.

Now what?

See the second part of this discussion in my blog tomorrow for the answer and read my simple take on how to fix Malibu’s pollution problems in the Civic Center Area.

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