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.”
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?”