Sewer surveys slowly trickling into City Hall

As of Monday, 1,065 sewer system surveys had been received at La Cañada Flintridge City Hall. That's only just more than 50 percent of the 1,949 surveys sent out to sewer district No. 5 residents, but up 363 from those turned in prior to the original Nov. 5 deadline. The City Council agreed to extend the deadline indefinitely in the hope that a larger percentage of residents will return the surveys and let the city know which direction the residents choose to go with their wastewater discharge.

No magic number or percentage has been determined for when the returned survey envelopes will be opened, said Kevin Chun, La Cañada Flintridge's director of administrative services.

City staff plan to mail out another postcard to residents in the next few weeks reminding them to return their surveys.

Although the survey only asks if district No. 5 residents,homes south of Foothill Boulevard, would vote for the proposed $4.2 million design of a low-pressure sewer system that's expected to cost $91 million, residents voting against the system design were asked to write on their survey why they would vote 'No,' and say if they prefer the more expensive gravity flow system that residents voted against pursuing in that area two years ago.

Three choices

“There are really three options,” said Edward Hitti, director of public works. “It's up to the residents. They can choose a gravity system, the low-pressure system, or they can choose to leave the septic systems in place. But, if they leave the existing systems they would be regulated by the regional board and the cost could go way up.”

Leaving the existing systems in place may sound, to some, like a simpler alternative than voting to be assessed a one-time installation fee of between $33,150 and $60,550 per home, based on lot size, (or a yearly fee of between $3,085 and $5,638), plus an additional $514 yearly maintenance fee. However, that probably is not the case, city and county officials say.

Legislation issue

According to documents provided to residents at three previous community workshops, the California Water Code requires a report of waste discharge be filed with the Regional Water Control Board. The Los Angeles region in 1952 issued a waiver of the requirement for homeowners to obtain those permits for residential septic systems. The waiver expired in 2004; however, the city of La Cañada Flintridge was given an extension of the waiver until 2009 after planning began on sewer district Nos. 1, 2, and 3.

Add into the mix that state Assembly Bill 885, which passed in 2000, but has been under additional review, is expected to be adopted in May 2008. Enforcement of that bill, Hitti previously explained, could require homeowners to either upgrade their septic tank to make it comply — at an anticipated cost of $15,000 to $200,000 — or hook up to a city sewer system.

Since the proposed legislation hasn't yet been enacted, it's not clear what to expect if residents opt to leave their existing systems in place. And, once proposed legislation becomes law, state government and water boards could have the ability to take a more proactive role.

In an extreme scenario, such as occurred in San Luis Obispo County in 1983, where monitoring showed that water quality and public health were being threatened by septic system discharges, a prohibition was enforced against residents' septic systems in a portion of that county, according to the California Regional Water Control Board Internet website. San Luis Obispo County was then working with a local community services district to build a community wastewater system to replace individual septic systems. Residents in that area were issued “cease and desist orders” for their septic systems and given 60 days from the date of the completion of the wastewater system to hook up to the community wastewater system.

Laying out options

Another scenario if Flintridge residents opt out of the sewer system is that the water board could allow residents to retain their current septic systems on a case-by-case basis. However, according to Hitti's hypothesis, some homeowners with non-compliant systems could have to pay tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars to upgrade their systems in order to comply with whatever regulations are enforced.

Although city staff and some council members promote the low-pressure sewer system option as the most cost-efficient way to hook up the residents below Foothill Boulevard, there are other alternatives, three of which, all on-site systems, were presented at District No. 5 workshops. Wendy Phillips, chief of the groundwater cleanup and permitting section of the California Water Quality Regional Board in Los Angele, said the board also does not endorse the technologies shown .

“The key point that state regulators are trying to [impart to] the residents is that their wastewater discharged in the future through septic systems must meet water quality objectives that protect underlying groundwater, to ensure that this underlying groundwater can be used in the future as a source of drinking water,” Phillips said. “The LA Water Board is aggressive about protecting groundwater, given our dependence on imported waters and the complex delivery systems for importing those waters,” she added.

Many residents of the district have expressed interest in either splitting the district so residents in one portion, wouldn't bepaying for a more expensive system because of the other side of the district's choice, or going back to the previously rejected gravity flow system.

No decisions yet

City Councilwoman Laura Olhasso said that all options for the district are “still on the table” and no decision will be made until residents have the chance to weigh in, by returning their survey ballot. “We haven't opened the surveys yet, so we really have no idea which way residents want to go,” she said, adding that the city isn't pushing for one option over another. “Our goal is to give all of the residents all the choices to consider. We gave them the low pressure system as an option because it is less expensive. But, if they want to pay more for gravity flow, that's their choice.

“Our greatest concern is to get as many [surveys] turned in as possible, so we get a good idea which way the district is leaning. That's why we are really urging people to turn in their surveys.”

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