City of Malibu seeks septic tank solutions

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Surfer Tony Gamboa showers off the salt water after he finshed his day of surfing at Surfrider Beach August 4, 2005 in Malibu, California. An envriomental group has named Malibu's Surfrider Beach as the dirtiest beach in Los Angeles County.

Septic tanks helped give birth to the city of Malibu just 18 years ago. People along 21 miles of scenic coastline wanted local control over how Malibu would treat wastewater. Now regional water officials will vote on whether to prohibit septic systems. Regulators blame septic tanks for poor water quality along the coast, at surf spots and in Malibu Lagoon.

Water polluted with fecal bacteria and other substances persists – notoriously so – in Malibu. Even under more monitoring and stricter regulation, surfers keep getting rashes and eye infections. Beach water quality keeps failing state standards almost half the time. Tracy Egoscue, the executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, says Malibu's past is one of the best reasons to take action in the present.

Water regulators propose a moratorium on septic tanks inside the red line. Malibu proposes some limits only in the shaded areas. Click to see detail in a larger map.

Egoscue says it's the third time the regional water board has considered dramatic action. "The City of Malibu has been under a memorandum to clean things up," she points out. "They have resisted this effort from the beginning and, they have failed to do what they have promised to do, so obviously what we've been doing isn't working and we have to do something more."

That something more is a moratorium on new septic tanks and a 5-year deadline to replace current systems with sewers and a treatment plant. City Manager Jim Thorsen says Malibu opposes that ban. "Their prohibition goes so far beyond what we would consider as the core problem of what the pollution is coming from that it makes it impossible for us to comply with that timeframe."

Some Malibu residents have fought to keep septic tanks, fearing overdevelopment would follow a bigger system. Thorsen dismisses that justification. He says city leaders don't think sewage systems promote overdevelopment. "We already have a general plan which has some of the most restrictive growth restrictions in the entire state, "he says. "By constructing a centralized wastewater system that certainly wouldn't induce any more growth than what's potentially there now."

In fact, says Thorsen, Malibu will bring its own proposal to the regional water board – one that includes a smaller water treatment plant, first for the Civic Center commercial area and later on for the residential Serra retreat neighborhood. Still, Thorsen says most beach pollution probably isn't from septic tanks. "Stormwater definitely causes it. High tides going up into the kelp racks and up onto the sand causes bacteria to be dragged out into the ocean. And the contribution of the septic systems is still a little bit fuzzy."

Thorsen points to studies from UCLA and the US geological survey that he says find the source of some bacteria to be inconclusive; those studies are still in progress. Egoscue says science has already told water regulators a different story. The water board monitors some Malibu septic tanks now, she says. Investigators see the same thing over and over. "The use of septic systems in this high risk area is contributing to water quality violations."

Egoscue says she hasn't heard much about Malibu's alternative to a full ban. But she says the challenge of getting a treatment plant built isn't enough of an obstacle to support an alternate plan. "It is feasible, it's a question of will at this point," she says.

Thorsen says that will has been building in recent years. He acknowledges that Malibu may still be toughening up its water pollution enforcement. But as a 25 year veteran of local government, he says that's to be expected in a new city. "As you start out a city, you're really an infant. By the time you hit age 15-18 you're now starting to get some financial resources. And now we're at the point where we're implementing some of the best and scientifically sound projects in the country."

The proposal from water regulators treats Malibu as teenager who doesn't heed authority and needs strict guidance. Thorsen hopes to convince the regional water board that even if his city is a teenager, it's the kind you can trust home alone for the weekend.

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