Laguna Beach city officials reached a court settlement with an environmental watchdog group that requires multi-million dollar improvements to the city’s sewer system to prevent spills in coming years.
The consent decree, approved in U.S. Central District Court in Santa Ana on Dec. 16, is a binding legal contract of nearly eight years between the city and the non-profit California River Watch. Based in Sebastopol, the organization aims to protect state waters and its actions have resulted in 136 court settlements against cities, companies and water districts over wastewater since 1999, according to the nonprofit’s website.
The accord brings to an end a suit filed against Laguna Beach in October 2014 where CRW initially alleged the city of 1,868 violations of the federal Clean Water Act over leaking sewer lines and spills.
While Judge David Carter dismissed a portion of the suit’s allegations related to leaking sewer lines in March, the agreement over other claims requires the city to undertake significant measures to upgrade its sewer system, without admitting fault. These measures are contingent on the city imposing a sewer rate increase and obtaining a $10 million loan. A rate increase in 2020 would be in addition to the current 4.75 percent annual increase, where home owners in town pay $609 a year and businesses $599, according to the city website. The loan apparently would be obtained from the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, which was not a defendant in the suit.
“These are capital improvements that are long overdue for the city,” said Roger Butow, an environmental consultant and 43-year Laguna resident who joined CRW’s suit as an individual. “This is a tacit admission that the city knew it was not doing what it needed to.”
City officials pushed back on that appraisal. The agreement indicates that “their efforts are pro-active to address wastewater concerns,” said David Shissler, the city’s water quality director and appointed spokesman on the issue. “We will continue to stick to our plan and we are doing a good job,” he said.
Much of what the city agreed to in the court decree are pieces of a recently adopted 10-year plan to ensure water quality and keep infrastructure at peak efficiency. The most recent version, adopted by the City Council in April, allocates $35 million to improve the condition and operation of its own pipelines and lift stations as well as contributing to facility improvements with SOCWA, which operates a sewage treatment facility in Aliso Creek.
The decree codifies the terms of the city’s remediation plans over the next decade. Much of the initial work involves identifying deficiencies through closed circuit television monitoring of public sewer facilities and determining repair priorities, the decree says. Work will then begin on upgrading the defective stretches and components under a schedule, which will replace all failing or severely deteriorated equipment within 30 months of detection, the decree specifies.
The consent decree does not require the city to admit wrongdoing, which is typical under these agreements.
Neither does the agreement take into account what Butow claims is the city’s reticence in addressing pollution issues over the last 20 years.
After a series of beach-closing sewage spills in the ‘90s, Butow and his organization, Clean Water Now, successfully appealed to state and federal environmental regulators to intervene in Laguna Beach. The result, accepted by the city, was a large fine, adoption of a zero tolerance policy for sanitary sewer overflows and the creation of a water quality department, according to Butow.
The lawsuit, though, identified new episodes of wastewater pollution by Laguna Beach in recent years.
Shissler points out that regulators with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Diego recently evaluated the city’s efforts on water quality and pollution control and identified the actions “as very favorable.”
The odorous byproduct of a degrading sewer system can easily be detected along South Coast Highway, impacting motorists and residents alike. The issue concerns a series of pump stations between Emerald Bay and Aliso Canyon, according to Butow, who lives in lower Victoria Beach and has personally complained about the odors. “These stations push wastewater south and the odors are a real problem,” he said.
The City Council in April allocated $80,000 for the installation of an odor control system at Bluebird and Laguna SOCWA lift stations.
Another project targeted in the decree is repair of the sewer collection system along portions of Forest Avenue and portions of Crestview Drive. Shissler said “this repair would be several years out.” Other remediation ordered in the decree includes the inspection and repair of all private sewer system connections, which are deemed deficient. A financing arrangement was included as well, where residents could tap matching city funds up to $1,600 to make sewer connection upgrades.
“We proved to River Watch that we are doing everything we can to address wastewater system issues,” said Shissler.
As part of the decree, California River Watch was required to keep a statement posted on its website for 7.5 years describing Laguna Beach as “working hard to be an exceptional steward of environment actions.”
For Butow, the decree is a means to an end. “I just want to protect the place I live and love,” he said.