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City wary after Malibu ruling

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board last week banned the installation of septic systems in central and eastern Malibu due to concerns about seepage and contamination. Malibu and La Cañada Flintridge have long been the only cities in the county of Los Angeles where septic tanks remain legal and widely used.

The decision came at a meeting on Nov. 5 that lasted 10 hours and drew hundreds of people on both sides of the issue to Metropolitan Water District of Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles. Sewer opponents in Malibu have argued for years that a modern wastewater system would spur unwanted development, while proponents say septic systems are polluting the region.

Studies have proven that wastewater from septic tanks in central and eastern Malibu has been making its way into Malibu Creek and Malibu Lagoon, causing contamination in the groundwater and local beaches. At this time, the tanks will still be permitted in parts of the city where they do not have as significant an impact on the watershed.

Malibu property owners in the prohibition areas are now barred from installing new septic tanks, and they must replace existing tanks within 10 years. Residential property owners will pay approximately $500 a month to hook up to a central sewage system. Business owners could pay up to $20,000 a month, depending on how much water they use.


Like Malibu, La Cañada has had a decades-long struggle over septic tanks and the conversion to a centralized sewer system. Unlike in Malibu, however, septic systems were never banned. Instead, the city has been converting to a sewer system step by step with the support of property owners, and the 70% of the city is now served by sewers. On Oct. 5, however, several hundred property owners south of Foothill Boulevard rejected the formation of an assessment district that would have initiated a $40 million low-pressure sewer system project for 680 homes in the Flintridge area.

La Cañada is different than Malibu in size and geographic makeup, city officials said this week, but added that they are closely observing the changes being implemented in the coastal community.

“Malibu is somewhat different than La Cañada in that the Regional Water Quality Control Board could prove that raw sewage was indeed getting into the ocean and causing people illnesses,” Mayor Laura Olhasso said. “Here in La Cañada, the Regional Water Quality Control Board has not proven that water that gets filtered into the water basins does actually pollute our underground water table. But the fact that the water board actually took such action against the city of Malibu is a precedent that we need to be quite cognizant of.”

Mary Ann Luntz, chair of the RWQC board and mayor of the city of Monrovia, said she and her colleagues address issues of wastewater case by case but declined to comment on the future of septic tanks in La Cañada.


Councilman Dave Spence said he believes the water board is slowly tying the noose around the use of septic tanks, and it is only a matter of time before it turns its attention to La Cañada. “The bottom line is the Regional Water Quality Control Board does not like having communities not on sewers,” he said.