State water board to vote on proposal requiring Malibu to install its first central sewer system

Septic tanks and leach pits could soon be endangered commodities in Malibu.

On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board is slated to vote in Sacramento on a proposal to require the coastal community to install its first central sewer system, cease permits for new septic setups and phase out hundreds of existing small-scale systems by 2019.

Chronic pollution in Malibu Creek and Lagoon and Surfrider Beach — and repeated failures by Malibu to address the problem — spurred the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board last November to propose the septic ban for a large area of central and eastern Malibu. The state board typically supports regional panels’ recommendations.

Malibu officials say the proposed moratorium zone, which encompasses about 550 residences and businesses, is so large that the city could not devise a system capable of handling all of the wastewater. The city has presented to the board a modified plan that would cover fewer homes and businesses and eliminate septic systems in phases.


The city supports the regional board’s clean-water goals, said Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner, a surfer who said he has been sickened many times by the tainted water at famed Surfrider Beach. But, he added, the “currently proposed expansive prohibition zone would create insurmountable obstacles and uncertainty that would stall action.” Malibu’s alternative plan, he added, is technically feasible and “something we can sell to our voters.”

“Sewer” has long been a dirty word in Malibu, which formed its own government in 1991 to ward off Los Angeles County’s plans to install a sewer system. Some residents feared that sewers would lead to unchecked development of their bucolic coastal enclave. But, with many tests over the years pointing to septic systems as a likely cause of persistent pollution, water-quality officials and the environmental community have pushed harder to spark change.

“The bottom line is Malibu Lagoon is polluted and has been polluted for decades, and Surfrider Beach is polluted and has been polluted for decades,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group. “Surfrider and Malibu Lagoon have waited long enough, and Tuesday, hopefully, that wait will be over.”

Gold added that the environmental and surfing communities “are absolutely in solidarity supporting the regional board.” At a “surf-in” Thursday, surfers and other activists linked arms at the Surfrider Beach shoreline to demonstrate.


Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen said recent analyses commissioned by the city show that bacteria at Surfrider do not come from human waste. But those results have yet to be confirmed by other scientists.

The proposed ban would immediately halt the permitting of septic systems in the commercial areas of the Civic Center and the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway from Serra Road to Sweetwater Canyon, as well as the residential areas of Malibu Colony, Malibu Road, Serra Retreat, Sweetwater Mesa and Malibu Knolls.

The regional board’s recommendation calls for phasing out existing septic systems in commercial areas by 2015 and in residential areas by 2019. Homeowners with projects underway or in the permitting process would be allowed to install septic systems, but they would have to stop discharges from those systems by 2019.

Malibu’s alternative would cover about 30 businesses in the Civic Center area and about 100 homes in Serra Retreat. By 2015, a centralized plant would treat wastewater from the biggest users in the Civic Center. By 2019, the treatment would expand to cover effluent from Serra Retreat homes. Also by 2019, homes and restaurants in the Malibu Colony would be required to add a process to disinfect the effluent in their existing septic systems.

Thorsen said a “big chasm” existed between the projected 600,000 gallons of wastewater per day that would be generated in the regional board’s proposed zone versus the 280,000 gallons that the city estimates a central plant could treat. “The region-wide prohibition is going to lead us to failure,” he said.

He projected that the cost for sewage treatment in the regional board’s proposed prohibition area would run as high as $52 million and require discharging treated wastewater into the ocean or the Malibu Creek aquifer.

Gold said that an “ocean outfall” would never be approved by the California Coastal Commission and that Malibu’s raising of the issue was “just not productive.”

Malibu officials have been lobbying members of the state board to return the issue to the regional panel so that the city and regulators could work out their differences. Late last week the state board staff issued comments that appeared to open the door, years down the road, to adjustments in the prohibition zone’s size should science and other evidence warrant.


One way or the other, the era of septic will end, Thorsen said.

“We don’t want stagnation, delay and litigation,” he said. “We want to build a wastewater treatment plant.”