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State Warns Sanitation Officials on Cleanup : Pollution: The Ojai Valley district may have to install a filter system to treat waste water that flows into the Ventura River.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State water authorities have warned the Ojai Valley Sanitation District that they intend to require the installation of a $5-million filter system to clean up waste water that critics say is polluting the Ventura River.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles issued a preliminary order May 4 indicating that the new system should be in place in the district’s North Ventura Avenue sewage plant by July, 1993. The board is expected to make the order final at a meeting Monday in Ventura City Hall, according to several sources, including sanitation district General Manager Eric Oltmann.

To begin paying for the new filters, which are designed to prevent the release of harmful viruses and bacteria, the district is expected to raise fees to its 11,000 customers by 50% next year. Bills will go up from an average of $10.50 per month to about $16.50 per month.

At the same water board meeting Monday, the board is expected to renew a five-year permit to discharge waste water into the river, provided the new requirements are met.

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In addition to ordering the installation of filters, the new permit would require the district to control the temperature of its waste water and to limit the amount of ammonia and other substances being discharged. It would require the district to determine whether its discharges are responsible for the river’s low oxygen levels, which starve fish and other aquatic life.

These requirements will help improve the river’s deteriorating wildlife habitat, authorities said.

The state’s 1990 Water Quality Assessment listed the lower seven miles of the Ventura River as an impaired body, meaning that it could no longer support a healthy fish population. The river has traditionally been the spawning ground for the freshwater rainbow trout and the steelhead trout.

Mark Capelli, a member of Friends of the Ventura River, an environmental group that has pushed for the filters and tighter deadlines to install them, said the order is many years overdue.

“The district has been pumping private waste into public waters that run through two public parks, and the discharge requirements haven’t reflected that fact,” Capelli said.

But James Kerwin of Oak View, an Ojai Valley Sanitation District board member, contends that the filters are unnecessary.

“I don’t believe it’s really happening that viruses and bacteria are going into the river,” he said.

Robert P. Ghirelli, executive officer of the Los Angeles regional board, said the new filters will reduce the threat to public health from exposure to viruses and bacteria since the river is more widely used today than it was 10 years ago.

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The order is being issued “so people swimming in the river are not exposed to harmful bacteria that can make them sick,” Ghirelli said.

Regional board officials said the Ojai Valley Sanitation District meets the current requirements for discharge of waste water into the river. The plant now removes solids and treats the residue with chlorine before the waste water flows into the river five miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean, said Ronald E. Sheets, superintendent of the Ventura Avenue plant. That is known as secondary treatment.

The new filters, which would bring the plant up to more stringent, tertiary treatment standards, are designed to remove organisms that secondary treatment misses. Those organisms cling to tiny particles of waste discharged into the river at the treatment plant.

The waste from the plant flows to sea past the Ventura Beach R.V. Resort on West Main Street. A popular recreation spot named Surfer’s Point is just east of the estuary.

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State Parks and Recreation Department figures show that more than 1 million people a year use the beaches in those areas and at Emma Wood State Beach, which provides access to the Ventura River.

No cases of illnesses as a direct result of swimming in the river have been reported, said Dr. Lawrence Dodds, director of Ventura County Public Health. Dodds, however, added that physicians are not required to report such illnesses.

The stricter discharge requirements come as no surprise to sanitation district officials, since the Los Angeles regional water board first discussed the need for the filters in 1974, Oltmann said.

Had the Oak View Sanitary District, which then operated the Ventura Avenue plant, decided to install filters at that time, the federal government would have paid 90% of the cost, Oltmann said.

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Now, the ratepayers will be obliged to foot the entire bill, Oltmann said. After the initial 50% hike next year, Oltmann predicted that rates will rise a more moderate 10% per year.

Despite an official position opposing the order to install filters--a position Oltmann said the district owes to its ratepayers--Oltmann acknowledges the need for tighter controls on the discharge.

“Filters have been proven effective in removing viruses,” he said.

In fact, the Ojai Valley Sanitation District has already asked contractors to submit proposals to build the filters, Oltmann said.

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