Malibu Septics: Round Three

Does the Regional Water Board have the stomach for house-to-house septics enforcement in Malibu?

Round three on the great debate over what downtown Malibu will do with its sewage is scheduled for the Regional Water Board hearing this Thursday in the nearby beach city of Glendale.  Will the infamous Malibu smell waft into olfactory history?  The answer may or may not be clearer after Thursday. As I previously blogged, the proposed wastewater Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has many flaws including: no true accountability for the city of Malibu in the event residents reject a sewer assessment fee; the creation of a new, enormous Phase 3 with a compliance period of 2025, and even then, only if studies demonstrate that onsite septic systems are contributing to water quality problems in Malibu Lagoon; and the inclusion of systems in Phase 3 (Malibu Road, much of Winter Canyon and the Hughes Lab on the hill) that would have to defy the laws of physics to pollute Malibu Lagoon, but not groundwater or Malibu’s beaches.  I’m sure the fact that Phase 3 residents have as good a chance of approving an assessment district as winning the state lottery had nothing to do with the creation and geography of the third phase.

Unlike the Basin Plan amendment (septic system prohibition by 2015 for commercial properties and 2019 for residential properties in the civic center) that was approved by the Regional Water Board over a year and a half ago and upheld by the State Water Board last fall, the MOU does not have any technical supporting documents or even a staff report.  The MOU is a compromise attempt by Regional Board negotiators to get some buy-in from Malibu to move forward in earnest on a wastewater plan for the civic center.  There is a significant concern from the Regional Board that an MOU is necessary to prevent the city of Malibu from suing over the Basin Plan amendment for the prohibition of land disposal of wastewater.  However, the MOU appears completely unenforceable by the state or any other concerned stakeholder.

The full Regional Board needs to remember that litigation in Malibu over a far-reaching regulation is almost a certainty.  Ask the Coastal Commission if you don’t believe me. The city of Malibu has a long history of delaying responsibility for water quality at Surfrider Beach, Malibu Lagoon and other beaches.  For many years, all water quality problems were blamed on Tapia.  Then they stopped discharging seven months a year. Then, the finger pointed to upstream cities and development.  Next, Malibu targeted runoff from the civic center area with its runoff treatment facility and Legacy Park.  The time has long passed for owners of onsite wastewater treatment systems in the civic center to step up and hook up to and help pay for a small, centralized water recycling facility.

We agree with many concerned residents that an oversized water recycling facility that is growth inducing is not desirable in an area that can’t adequately dispose of current sewage loads.  Also, we agree that Malibu Knolls, Malibu Bluffs Park, and Sweetwater Mesa are unlikely to cause or contribute to civic center groundwater contamination, lagoon contamination or beach pollution.

However, Malibu must quickly move forward with an integrated wastewater solution that will result in construction of a water recycling facility by 2015, recycled water storage to minimize discharges and maximize water reuse (and reliance on imported potable water), significant consequences for those who choose not to hook up to the sewer (advanced onsite treatment requirements for disinfection and/or denitrification), and a requirement to hook up to the sewer for all systems that have the reasonable potential to cause or contribute to water quality standards exceedances – even in civic center areas where the water recycling plan is unpopular, like Winter Canyon.

Also, the Phase 3 requirements must be amended so that they make scientific sense. In order to comply with the prohibition terms and the Santa Monica Bay beach bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load, homes on Malibu Road should at least be required to upgrade their septic systems with disinfection by 2019 if they choose not to hook up to the new sewer. The same requirement is needed for the commercial properties on PCH between Surfrider and just south of Malibu Pier.

I’m firmly convinced that a water recycling plant solution in the civic center will not occur without Malibu’s leadership in conjunction with the state’s regulatory requirement.  The Regional Board just does not have the staff, and has never demonstrated the stomach, to enforce septic system prohibition requirements on a house-by-house basis.  However, just because Malibu must do its fair share towards cleaning up the Lagoon, Surfrider and adjacent beaches, it doesn’t mean that the Regional Board should approve an MOU that doesn’t hold Malibu accountable for clean water. The current MOU provides reasonable assurances that the commercial properties in the civic center will be sewered to a water recycling plant, but it doesn’t do much else.  That has to change Thursday.


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