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Sanitary district OKs major Costa Mesa sewer pipeline project

After about 20 minutes of discussion Thursday night, Costa Mesa Sanitary District directors quietly approved the agency's portion of an estimated $23-million sewer pipeline project that will bring major construction work to the city's Westside, including installation of a new pipe under Talbert Regional Park.

The unanimous vote solidified the district's plans for its end of the multiagency deal: installing a nearly half-mile pipeline under Canyon Drive, a residential street, and decommissioning several pump stations in the area. The work is estimated to cost $7.1 million.

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The directors also agreed to the Orange County Sanitation District's $14.9-million plan to install an approximately 4,800-foot pipeline under Talbert's southern edge and the Santa Ana River and leading into treatment facilities in Huntington Beach. A vote by the Newport Beach City Council is still needed.

The two new pipelines will move untreated sewage using gravitational forces rather than pressure applied from pump stations.

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Sanitary district officials said the project — which isn't expected to affect sewer rates — will negate the need for expensive upgrades to the antiquated pump stations and guarantee a more reliable system. The current sewer system around the park has failed 16 times since 1999.

"There's more expensive sewer infrastructure that has to happen if we don't do the abandonment," said district engineer Robin Hamers.

One failure a year "is a bad deal, as far as I'm concerned," said district President Mike Scheafer. "We're spending a dollar to save thousands of dollars, as I see it potentially."

Some Costa Mesa activists, Westside residents and environmentalists protested the plans, arguing that major construction along Canyon Drive would be extremely disruptive and that Talbert — a roughly 180-acre nature preserve that contains endangered species — would be harmed.

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"It's one of those rare places — very rare places — that is wild and quiet," environmentalist Kevin Nelson said of Talbert park. "It's highly unique. "

Erik Meister, president of the Westbluff Village condominium complex's homeowners association, said the Canyon Drive construction would "be devastating to our community and the businesses around it."

"Add another dime to my bill, but don't disrupt my life" for years, he added.

The project is expected to take as long as two years, though officials stressed that the timeline doesn't necessarily mean two years of constant construction in any particular neighborhood.

Now that the plans are approved on Costa Mesa's end, officials said they want to hold meetings to inform residents. No community meetings on the issue had been held before Thursday's vote — a point of contention for the environmentalists who opposed the plans.

Director Bob Ooten said he wanted a forum to hear the public's concerns and "keep people from losing sleep over, potentially, a nonproblem."

In a follow-up interview Friday, Nelson, who heads the environmentalist group Nature Commission, said he and former Costa Mesa Councilman Jay Humphrey plan to continue lobbying against the Talbert pipeline to outside agencies, including the California Coastal Commission.

They also want to speak with county sanitation officials to get more detailed explanations of the nixed alternatives that would have avoided digging under Talbert.

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"We're gonna get these fleshed out," Nelson said.

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