After a decade of disagreement about the impacts of sewage treatment plant discharges to the Santa Clara River estuary, the city of Ventura and environmental groups Ventura Coastkeeper, the Wishtoyo Foundation and Heal the Bay today jointly announced a settlement agreement to protect the estuary while increasing local water recycling.
The Santa Clara River estuary is the terminus of one of Southern California’s largest and most productive river systems. The area is also home to the endangered southern steelhead trout and tidewater goby. The agreement will end the last direct sewage discharge to an estuary in California.
The settlement will result in at least a 50% reduction (approximately 4-5 million gallons a day) and up to a 100% reduction (8-10 million gallons per day) in treated sewage discharges to the estuary. This tertiary-treated effluent (filtered and disinfected) will be recycled locally for irrigation and other non-potable uses. The water that doesn’t get recycled will be discharged to a treatment wetland that will further cleanse the treated wastewater. Then, the water will flow through the wetland before being discharged to the estuary.
The days of direct wastewater discharges to the estuary will end by 2025 at the latest. Although the deadline is nearly 14 years away, the innovative solution will result in a healthier estuary, the creation of new wetland habitat, and increased water recycling.
As part of the settlement, the Coastkeeper and Wishtoyo agreed to drop their Clean Water Act lawsuit against Ventura. Heal the Bay agreed to drop its administrative appeal to the State Water Board on the Regional Water Board’s decision to grant a discharge permit to Ventura without making a determination on the environmental impacts of the discharge on the estuary.
Under the California Enclosed Bays and Estuary Plan, sewage discharges to estuaries are only allowed when the Regional Board determines that the discharges enhance water quality and aquatic habitat. The board did not make an enhancement determination for Ventura’s last discharge permit.
At a time when water supplies are becoming increasingly scarce, the settlement marks a great example of how city and environmental groups can negotiate a settlement that moves a municipality forward in an integrated water management approach.
Although Ventura is one of the few cities in Southern California that relies strictly on local water supplies, moving more aggressively toward recycled water should reduce overall imported water needs in the region. The solution also will result in fewer artificial discharges into the Santa Clara River estuary, and a substantial reduction in nutrient discharges. These reductions should create a more natural hydrologic regime and improved estuary water quality.
Resource agencies like the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can still determine if some volume of treated wastewater is needed to preserve estuary ecology. However, this determination may not occur for years. Meanwhile, Ventura will move forward with the settlement agreement requirements to increase water recycling, eliminate direct estuary discharges, and reduce the overall volume of treated wastewater going into the estuary.
The improvements do come with a modest cost, but the settlement won’t exceed $55 million for Ventura ratepayers. And in the long run, the investments should pay financial as well as environmental dividends.
Recognizing the significance of this settlement, the Ventura City Council conducted full and transparent public debate about its merits before taking a final vote. We strongly supported this approach. An engaged citizenry will see the benefits this collaborative approach will bring to Ventura.
Local river protection has never been more difficult. But pending the final City Council approval in the next 120 days, the future of the Santa Clara River estuary looks much brighter.