Cleaning Up the Stink in Malibu

200390363-001My kids are ages 16, 13 and 10.  Trying to get them to clean up the mess in their rooms is nearly impossible.  If I badger them continuously, promises will be made to tidy up.  Inevitably, these pledges are empty and rarely result in a clean room.  My experience with Malibu during its 18 years of cityhood is pretty similar: a horrible mess, an ungodly smell, and plenty of unfulfilled promises. 

On Thursday, the Regional Water Board will play the role of the parent that has had enough of a recalcitrant child.  Malibu, board members will say, it’s time to clean up your mess and get real about fixing long-standing water quality issues. And this time there are consequences — an immediate ban on new septic systems in the Malibu civic center area and a moratorium on all on-site wastewater treatment systems by 2014.

A battle has been waged in the local print media about the cost of compliance with the state’s moratorium.  Figures ranging from $500 to $1,000 a month for single family homes have been quoted as fact in the local newspapers and the L.A. Times.  Unfortunately, the assumptions underlying these economic figures have not been provided to the public for review, so rumors of solid gold sewers and platinum membrane bioreactors are still in play. 

Seriously, the overall cost of the civic center wastewater recycling facility will definitely be less than the $45 million getting spent on the glorified native-plant botanical garden/stormwater storage facility at Legacy Park.  Yet, no one from Malibu complained about the high cost of Legacy Park. 

Malibu’s history has been one of opposing a centralized sewage treatment plant because of the growth-inducing potential of sewers.  Malibu became a city in response to L.A. County’s horrible plan to put a massive sewage treatment plant in pristine Corral Canyon.  The environmental community joined Malibu in opposing this plan for many reasons, but we were still eager for Malibu efforts to clean up the pollution in Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

As demonstrated by Malibu Days at the Coastal Commission and the decade-long battle over the city’s Local Coastal Plan, growth planning and management has always been difficult and contentious in Malibu.  Also, numerous wastewater plans and studies have been completed over the last 18 years, but the one constant has been high fecal bacteria counts at Surfrider Beach.

Initially, fingers pointed to the Tapia Water Reclamation Plant as the only source of the problems at Surfrider, but thanks to the Regional Water Board and the environmental community, Tapia stopped discharging to Malibu Creek from April to October over a decade ago.  Water quality improved at Surfrider, but it still gets failing grades on our Beach Report Card every time the lagoon breaches.

Thursday is D-Day for Malibu. The state will force the city to grow up after 18 years, whether its leaders like it or not. The Regional Water Board is using a blunt instrument to force the issue, a moratorium, because it doesn’t have any other vehicles to force Malibu to build a centralized water recycling plant by a date certain.  The moratorium area is larger than needed to improve water quality and protect public health, but a successful moratorium will finally force Malibu to do its fair share to clean up Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider.

In the 11th hour, Malibu is countering the state proposal with a phased plan with no legal accountability.  The plan itself demonstrates some merit,  with flexibility in disinfection treatment options. It allows for onsite advanced treatment rather than forcing everyone to sewer at the Malibu Colony, commercial properties along PCH, and Malibu Knolls.  Also, without a sewer requirement in Winter Canyon, the city would have potential wastewater disposal options that pose no pollution risk to the lagoon or Surfrider. 

However, without an enforceable plan with real consequences like an on-site system moratorium, the environmental community will have little choice but to oppose Malibu’s new proposal.  Malibu’s track record over the last 18 years just doesn’t merit allowing another voluntary commitment to sewer the civic center.

Because Malibu has yet to put its final proposal in writing, I urge the city to put their game plan in the form of an enforceable moratorium. The end result could be a more cost-effective wastewater management solution to the civic center area while providing the state and the public with legally binding assurances that improved water quality and protected public health are right around the corner.

A day at the beach shouldn’t make you sick.  Also, no one should eat at a restaurant and be subjected to that Malibu smell.  After the Regional Board meeting on Thursday and subsequent action in the civic center, maybe Surfrider will just be famous for a perfect wave.

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