Los Osos Sewer Construction to Begin in October, Gibson Tells RWQCB

By ED OCHS

UPDATE: Due to CDM’s redesign of the collection system, scheduled to take about nine months, construction start-up on the LOWWP has been delayed until Spring 2012.

Despite serious unanswered questions about whether it’s more a threat than a benefit to dwindling water resources, and about the historic lack of affordability for thousands of homeowners paying for it, the Los Osos Wastewater Project will break ground on construction in October with facility start-up in December 2014, confirmed District Supervisor Bruce Gibson and County Public Works project manager John Waddell at the Feb. 3 meeting of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Luis Obispo.

Despite serious unanswered questions about whether it’s more a threat than a benefit to dwindling water resources, and about the historic lack of affordability for thousands of homeowners paying for it, the Los Osos wastewater project will break ground on construction in October with facility start-up in December 2014, confirmed District Supervisor Bruce Gibson and County Public Works project manager John Waddell at the Feb. 3 meeting of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Luis Obispo.

“Our Board of Supervisors is prepared to act on a resolution to proceed (with the project) in the middle of March,” said Supervisor Gibson about the County’s anticipated due diligence resolution. “And it is with that resolution to proceed that we do formally take responsibility for the project, and things kick into high gear…”

Once the County accepts the project in March, Gibson said he will ask the RWQCB to drop the CDOs against 45 randomly-selected homeowners in Los Osos’ so-called “Prohibition Zone.”

“When that resolution is passed,” he told RWQCB Chairman Jeffrey Young, “I will very likely be back before your board with a formal request on for a recession of the CDOs that have been issued to individuals in Los Osos. With our resolution to proceed we the County will have full responsibility, and I think it would be a good move to remove whatever cloud remains by the existence of the CDOs to individuals. I understand that they are effectively in abeyance under their terms and under the progress the County has made, but I think it would be a reasonable step (to drop the CDOs.)”

Public Works project manager John Waddell outlined the County’s accelerated construction strategy. “The plan for the collection system is to use the existing CSD design for areas that don’t require major changes, which we anticipate is going to be a large part of the collection system. That will allow for a quick turn around on the design process in being able to get in to solicit bids and begin construction in a relatively short time, especially for a project this large, and allow us to meet our goal of getting into construction this year.

“Then parts of the collection system that need to be redesigned, and also the treatment facility, will be phased into construction in the following months,” he said, “so in the next 12 to 18 months all the portions of the project should be in construction.”

Affordability Crisis
Although affordability is not part of the RWQCB’s purview, Chairman Young acknowledged, he brought up the issue anyway, and board member Monica Hunter followed Young’s opening by grilling Gibson.

On the cost of the system Gibson said, “We are estimating both the property tax assessment and the rate and charges to come to about $194 per month for the average single-family house. That’s an average. … Low water users would be paying somewhat less than the average, and higher water users somewhat more. Mobile home parks and apartments will have a lower flat rate…

“No bills, no service charges are going to be charged to anyone until the plant is in operation [in late 2014] and then actually a little beyond that,” he added. “Property tax assessments may start showing up on property tax bills within the next year or two, and they will tend to ramp up as monies are taken out to do this (project).”

Explaining his intention to further lower monthly sewer bills with the indefinitely postponed Proposition 218 vote on undeveloped property owners, Gibson said, “The $194 per month does not include any assessment on the undeveloped properties that lies within the ‘Prohibition Zone,’ he explained. “We expect before the plant is put into operation (in 2014) to be able to propose an assessment for the undeveloped properties that would take another $27 million of the cost and spread it over the undeveloped properties. With that, the monthly estimate average drops to $163…”

During public comment Keith Wimer of the Los Osos Sustainability Group offered sharp counterpoint to Gibson’s often-repeated assertions on County efforts on behalf of affordability. “Households with four people will easily be looking at $400 per month,” he said, “and larger households will most likely see near $500 per month or more in 2014. These costs will undoubtedly have catastrophic effects on the community with 33% of the people collecting Social Security.”

On-lot costs of several thousand dollars just to hook up to the sewer will be enough to drive many homeowners in the “Prohibition Zone” to financial ruin. “The State Water Board has a separate program that would help individuals with their on-lot costs on a needs-tested basis,” Gibson said. “The USDA has a similar program, and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program would be similarly directed toward those individuals who will have trouble with expenses…”

Apparently alarmed by the fact that Los Osos has between 33% and 50% of residents living on fixed incomes, RWQCB board member Hunter asked Gibson if the County has “made any projections on how many households may actually qualify or need assistance. It’s roughly 5,000 households in the ‘Prohibition Zone,’” she said, “so 2,500 households may need assistance?”

“As to the individual household income distribution,” replied Gibson, “we’re awaiting the release of the 2010 census data to give us the latest view on that, so right now we don’t know…

“We hear wild speculation as to what fraction of the community is going to be displaced from their homes because of the cost of this project,” he said. “We don’t know the ultimate cost of this project, and we don’t know how people are going to specifically react in every case, so I would consider that (thousands being displaced) to be speculation on limited information.”

Responded Hunter, “I would urge the County to get these projections set up so that people can assure themselves (with) the confidence you have that we’re going to be able to address the issues for these folks,” she said. “If it turns out to be that half the community truly needs assistance, then the programs can only go so far. … Frankly, this has been in play for so long, and I’m still surprised that we still don’t know how many households we think are going to fall below the line in terms of being able to afford this project.”

“We have to get this community sewer system in,” stressed Gibson. “It’s actually a mandate from your board that that happen. We are deeply concerned at what it’s going to cost, but we don’t have the option of not doing it because of the cost.”

Wimer of the Los Osos Sustainability Group disagreed and asked the RWQCB to reconsider the County’s $166 million project as vastly overpriced, socially unfeasible and scientifically unproven.

“We’re still looking for the substantial evidence to support this project,” said Wimer. “Where are the nitrate studies to prove that nitrates are increasing as (RWQCB Resolution) 83-13 suggests? The studies we have show that they’ve stabilized and the EIR says that they’re within drinking water limits. The studies we have also show nitrates are low in the estuary and fecal coliform are within safe limits. Septic systems for the most part are working, and purveyors are going to treat the water for nitrates in areas where nitrates are higher, so where’s the problem?”

Public Works Designer Patricia Johanson Breaks Ground on Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City

A golden opportunity for Los Osos was squandered in early 2006 when the legendary New York-based eco-artist visited Los Osos to review options for a post-recall wastewater project. Even after expressing a ‘kinship’ with Los Osos, however, she was ignored by town leaders. Now she’s bringing her latest design magic to Salt Lake City, and it’s everything Los Osos should have today—and still can while there’s still time on the clock.

A golden opportunity for Los Osos was squandered in early 2006 when the legendary New York-based eco-artist visited Los Osos to review options for a post-recall wastewater project. Even after expressing a ‘kinship’ with Los Osos, however, she was ignored by town leaders. Now she’s bringing her latest design magic to Salt Lake City, and it’s everything Los Osos should have today—and still can while there’s still time on the clock.

By ED OCHS

Almost exactly five years to the day The Rock launched its first newspaper, we received a note from world-famous eco-artist and public works designer Patricia Johanson. She had some good news to share.

“After eight years and inordinate sums of money to the wrong people,” she wrote on February 5, “all the legal agreements have been signed and my Salt Lake City project is finally in construction. Why is it developers always seem to win at the expense of the general public! … It seems to be a process of wearing everyone down.”

Her note reminded us that in February 2006 Pam Ochs, head of the Los Osos Taxpayers Association (LOTA) and a founding partner in The Rock, invited Johanson to Los Osos to review post-recall sewer project options. The Eden of Los Osos and the naturalist genius of Johanson were a perfect match if there ever was one, and she said she felt a kinship with Los Osos and would certainly consider working there if asked.

Johanson’s fit with Los Osos was hand in glove, the beauty of Los Osos and the art of Patricia Johanson, together, two naturals. Her wetlands designs for the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility in Petaluma, California, Endangered Garden Water Treatment Facility in San Francisco, and Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas turned water-treatment projects into stunning nature parks.

“Johanson,” we wrote in that first issue of The Rock, “is known throughout the world for creating innovative designs that combine the industrial and imaginary in a way that—magically, through some eyes—turns wastewater and public works projects into their very opposites: realms of colorful, childlike joy and wonder that attract rather than repel.”

Johanson single-handedly tore down the chain-link-fence-around-a-rectangle concept of public works. She creates curves, walkways and waterways that dramatically enhance and utilize natural environments rather than disrupt them. Her designs bring people closer to nature rather than fence them out.

Now, after years of wrangling, Johanson is about to break ground on Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City. She could have been, should have been the co-designer of the Los Osos water reclamation plant. Her project would cost far less than MWH ditches and would have actually increased property values in Los Osos, putting Los Osos on the map with a project that seamlessly marries Los Osos’ unique estuary environment with a natural, sculptured water-recycling system. A Johanson project would also fill a need for a park that Los Osos has never had. But politics and agendas took their toll as it always has in Los Osos.

Los Osos wasn’t totally unfamiliar to Johanson. She had worked on Petaluma and wanted to bring in engineer Bob Gearhart, who did Arcada. Gearhart, coincidentally, had tried to penetrate the Los Osos sewer maze at one time and was “chased out of town” like so many other professionals. Nor was Los Osos unfamiliar with Johanson. Los Osos district engineer Rob Miller knew Johanson’s reputation, and Miller, who once said that bringing a ponding system to Los Osos was one of his career goals, held her in the highest regard. Miller was one of the few who jumped at the chance to meet with Johanson when she stayed for a night at the Back Bay Inn in Baywood Park on February 24, 2006.

While she was in Los Osos Johanson asked to meet with the town leaders, and we introduced her to then-town boss Gail McPherson and LOCSD board member Julie Tacker. McPherson later claimed she had met both Johanson and Gearhart previously, yet Johanson said she had never met McPherson before. Johanson and McPherson spent about an hour together but, unfortunately, McPherson didn’t follow up with Johanson. Tacker took The Rock staff and Johanson on a quick tour of out of town sites, including the Gorby property, which was not any list of out of town sites up for consideration at that time.

We even invited Pandora Nash-Karner, who once supported a ponding system for Tri-W, to meet Johanson, but she declined.

A week after Johanson’s visit Pam called McPherson about Johanson and McPherson said “it’s too early.” A few weeks passed, and another call to McPherson, who said “it’s too late.” Her “it’s too early, now it’s too late” routine is one of her most familiar tap dances.

Going directly to the County, we loaned Public Works Director Paavo Ogren a copy of Johanson’s book, and Ogren said they might be able to use Johanson at the end of the project. When he was asked for the book back, Ogren failed to return it as promised, and Pam teased Ogren by telling him, “If you had returned Johanson’s book like you were supposed to, we wouldn’t have filed our Proposition 218 lawsuit.” For a second Ogren thought she might be serious. Pam figured he tossed the book and any idea of working with Johanson in Los Osos in the trash. Why? He obviously had every intention of giving the work to his friends and cronies.

With today’s simultaneous water crisis and economic crisis in California, it should be mandatory that California governmental agencies such as the State and Regional Water Boards and Coastal Commission compare overpriced, out-dated conventional wastewater projects to Johanson’s vastly more economical and ecological public works designs—along with other viable alternatives with a proven track record–on a co-equal basis.

The public is not being served by the government-industrial complex that is San Luis Obispo County and global construction giant MWH America Inc. MWH projects lack everything Patricia Johanson brings to wastewater projects: environmental integrity, creative design and landscaping, wetlands water reclamation and dramatic cost savings.

As large as MWH is, as great as their reach, the best choice to co-design the Los Osos water recycling facility is still Patricia Johanson, who like so many others was tossed aside by Los Osos and County leadership—because of the big money to be made on the MWH megasewer by those in power, and their need to control the rich future of Los Osos to preserve their personal agendas and financial interests.

It is not acceptable to the taxpayers that the largest companies that only do the most expensive, out-dated systems get all the work simply because they always have. What policy dictates that public waste on such a massive scale must continue, especially when the state appears so desperate to identify and cut wasteful spending? California needs to be the leader in green, innovative technology, not the leader in rewarding the giants of costly old technologies that dominate the field.

Paavo Ogren says no contract with troubled MWH, which has been accused of bid-rigging and false billing in Los Osos, has been signed… yet. He didn’t mention whether it was a done deal anyway and that’s all that was left to be done, sign the papers. There’s still time for Ogr
en to bring in Patricia Johanson.

Click on the link to see who and what Los Osos had in its hands. http://www.youtube.com/user/ecoartspace#p/a/u/1/oZWJSyuzHBQ

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