Five years after being ordered to clean up the waste water it discharges into the Ventura River, the Ojai Valley Sanitary District is poised to begin construction on a $28-million sewage treatment plant.
The construction, likely to begin in late February or early March, will signal the end of what one environmentalist called "both a debate and a tug of war" over pollution in the river and the cost of the massive project.
For the district's 12,000 customers--who already pay the highest sewage bills in Ventura County--it will mark the coming of even steeper rates.
"It's just a real sockeroo," Ojai Councilwoman Nina Shelley said of the estimated $7-a-month increase needed to pay for the project.
"People have the impression Ojai is full of movie stars and rich folks," she said. "It's not true. . . . There are just a ton of folks who don't have a whole lot of money but who want to live in a real good community."
The state-of-the-art plant is being built to satisfy stringent requirements imposed by the state in 1990 after a study raised concerns about health risks to people swimming in the river, a shortage of oxygen threatening the fish population and an overgrowth of plants clogging the waterway.
Since the study was completed, district officials have argued that the cost of the massive overhaul--which involves building a new plant at the site of the existing one--would unfairly burden customers in the small district.
"We've done everything we could to resist this and do it as cheaply as possible to meet the state standards," said William E. Lotts, chairman of the district's board of directors. "We're stuck. We have to do it, and that's all."
Environmentalists, however, say the upgrade is long overdue to protect the lower portion of the river.
"Nobody has the right to put pollutants into a public waterway or use a public waterway free of charge to dispose of the waste they're generating," said Mark Capelli, executive director of Friends of the Ventura River, a group that has pushed for better filtration of sewage for more than a decade.
Moreover, Capelli said, the district's customers are not the only ones contributing to the cost of the new plant. All California taxpayers have a stake in the construction, he said, because the state has approved a low-interest, $15-million loan to the district.
"I think the benefit the public will realize from this upgrade will be substantial, and the improvement of water quality in the lower river and along the oceanfront will be dramatic," he said.
Even though the district has fought the upgrade because of the cost, Capelli praised board members for their planning. After listening to concerns of environmentalists, the board commissioned detailed studies of the river and potential sites for the new plant.
"It's been a long, protracted, drawn-out debate," he said. "But the district as a whole ought to be recognized for the work they have done to advance this project."
Board members cleared one of the final hurdles to the project in November when they awarded a $20.8-million construction contract to Santa Fe Springs-based Kiewit Construction Co.
At the same meeting, the board approved a $15-million loan from a state revolving fund. The loan carries a 3.4% interest rate and must be paid back over 20 years. An additional $4-million loan from the same fund is expected to be approved next year.
The total cost of the project is expected to be $28 million. In addition to the $15-million loan, the district hopes to receive $4.5 million in state loans.
The district has already paid $2.5 million and will pay the remaining $6 million out of money collected from ratepayers.
To raise that money, sewage rates are expected to soar to between $31.60 and $34.37 a month over the next two years. Rates will vary depending on where customers live in the district, which stretches from the north Ventura Avenue area to the east end of the Ojai Valley.
After the plant is completed in 1997, rates will probably increase again to pay for the higher operating costs of the new plant, said Eric Oltmann, the district's general manager.
"We're going to see some terrible, terrible rates here in years to come," he said.
The new plant will upgrade the treatment of sewage using a biological process to remove nitrates and phosphates that encourage the overgrowth of plants. And sophisticated filters--the most expensive part of the project--will strain out viruses and bacteria that could sicken people swimming in the river or surfing near the river mouth.
The tricky part about construction of the project, Oltmann said, is that the existing plant, at 6363 N. Ventura Ave., must continue to operate during construction. The entire structure must be rebuilt while the plant continues to treat 2.2-million gallons of sewage a day.
Environmentalists have argued against building the new plant at the same site because the location is vulnerable to severe flooding.
"A $24-million investment is a lot of money to be putting into a site that has been flooded before," Capelli said.
But Oltmann said the present site is protected from a once-a-century flood by a stone wall that will be raised another six inches as part of the project.
Moving the plant to another site, he said, would have added enormous cost to the overall price tag.
"Construction on a new site would be a wonderful luxury," he said. "But it was not a luxury we could afford."