Raw Sewage Deal

It's not even a year since the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) finally decided to move toward compliance with the 1972 Clean Water Act, and already the sewage it spews into the ocean is much cleaner. Today, 64 percent of sewage receives Act-mandated secondary treatment, as opposed to 53 percent from a year before—and rates have not gone up a cent.

"OCSD could have been doing this all along," contends Jan Vandersloot of the Ocean Outfall Group. "Why didn't they? Because they didn't have to."

It was a long battle by Internet-organized activists called the Ocean Outfall Group that finally swayed public opinion against the OCSD's sewage-treatment policies. Last July 17 the OCSD board of directors voted 13-12 not to apply for another of the waivers it had been receiving from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The improvement in sewage treatment is good news, but the OCSD won't have full 100 percent secondary treatment until new facilities are fully operational in 2012. And that will require a small rate increase—about $30 a year.

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However, this expense is only part of a package of OCSD projects that will total $2.4 billion. The OCSD board of directors has announced plans for a five-year series of rate hikes to pay for all of them—from the current sewage bill of $87.50 per year to about $200 per year.

But when the public roared its disapproval of the rate hikes, it was partly because the OCSD had tried to blame the huge costs of those projects on the defeat of the EPA waiver.

A message the OCSD mailed to ratepayers in early May said secondary treatment of wastewater "has increased annual operating expense nearly $7 million and has increased the 10-year capital improvement program to $2.1 billion. A sewer rate increase is required to pay for these changes."

In fact, the cost of full secondary treatment is just 18 percent of the $2.4 billion package of capital improvement projects.

But OCSD spokeswoman Sonja Wassgren acknowledged to the Weekly that the agency's projects include $1.1 billion for infrastructure upgrades or repair at its plants, $580 million for rehabilitating sewer lines, $180 million for the ambitious groundwater replenishment project and $80 million for helping individual cities repair their sewer infrastructure.

The OCSD's communiqué to the community likewise doesn't mention that construction of the full secondary facilities won't even begin until 2007 at the earliest. Or that its massive financial reserve—estimated at $554 million—is expected to remain untouched through all of the building and spending projects.

On the other hand, none of these facts has stopped the rabidly anti-tax Orange County Register from using the proposed rate hike as a battering ram against secondary treatment. The Register's opinion page continually defended the sewage waiver during the 18 months activists fought to sink it. The OCSD's misleading notice provided the ammo for the Registerto blast away again.

"The Register editorial pages warned that embracing secondary treatment for all sewage would come with a stiff price and likely not solve the real problem," says the paper's May 11 editorial. "Research showing urban runoff as the real contamination culprit continues to prove us right."

The "research" cited by the Reggie has in fact proven no such thing. There's still no consensus on what kind of pollution—human sewage or urban runoff—led to high bacteria counts at local beaches, although there is plenty of scientific speculation that the cause could be a combination of both.

However, the real venom of the Register's attack was in the way it spilled into its supposedly objective news pages, which gave the stray-bear-in-a-backyard-pool treatment to the idea that increased OCSD services might warrant increased revenues.

"I was never opposed to filtering the water twice," said Fullerton resident Nancy Slauson in a May 20 Register news story on the proposed rate hike. "I just don't like being asked to pay extra for it."

The coverage also included a comment from county Supervisor Jim Silva, who sits on the OCSD board and has previously supported full treatment, that ditching the waiver comes at a cost—creating the ironical situation of full-treatment opponents and proponents both saying the same thing.

Silva and the rest of the OCSD board get to sort this all out when the proposed rate hike comes before them on June 25. For it to pass, 17 of the 25 board members must approve it.

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