SLO County Sheriff Parkinson: 'We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out’ of Mental Illness Crisis

America’s jails and prisons have become our mental hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, and almost five years later, “The way we do business, the pure volume alone, has become alarming to everybody at this point,” said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson.

UPDATE: The article below was published in March 2014. On May 23, an emotionally-disturbed student attending the University of California, Santa Barbara in Isla Vista, California, killed six UCSB students and injured 13 people before taking his own life. Police visited 22-year-old Elliot Rodger at his apartment in late April and found him calm and polite, offering them no indication that he or anyone else were in danger. Hidden in his room were three guns… Four days later, on May 27, a patient at high-security Atascadero State Hospital was allegedly killed by another patient, and an employee was injured, in a hospital dorm room. An inmate, 34, was booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail the next day on suspicion of murder. The suspect had a history of assault and destructive behavior…


America’s jails and prisons have become our mental hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, and almost five years later, “The way we do business, the pure volume alone, has become alarming to everybody at this point,” said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson.

“That’s what makes it urgent that we are finally starting to realize that we’ve got a problem,” he recently told The ROCK.

The “problem” in 2014 is defined by a complex mix of laws, regulations, policies and budgetary restrictions, where state and local government bear the brunt of responsibility for treatment of the mentally ill. Finding effective patient care may depend on where someone lives in the state or county. A modern, capsule, historical overview of America’s care, and lack of it, for the mentally ill can be illustrated by the old balloon theory—push in one side and it pops out the other. Empty the psychiatric hospitals—and today there are more than three times more seriously mentally ill people in U.S. jails and prisons than in hospitals.

At least 16% of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons have a serious mental illness. In 1983 the percentage was 6.4%. So in less than three decades the percentage of seriously mentally ill prisoners has almost tripled, according to 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics.

There is a direct and persistent connection between the lack of treatment for mental illness and the commission of crimes, petty and violent. There are the headline-stealing mass killings that are impossible to ignore, yet continue: the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting; the Navy shipyard killings in Washington, D.C.; the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School; and even the Gus Deeds attack and suicide in Virginia, though not a mass killing—for want of one psychiatric bed. Each individual was in a psychiatric crisis and didn’t receive the help they desperately needed when they needed it, before tragedy struck.

Sheriff Parkinson, along with other sheriffs in the California State Sheriffs’ Association, recently discussed the impact of the mentally ill on law enforcement with Governor Brown. “He wants to solve problems,” Parkinson said. “He recognizes the problem. It’s been around and continues to be an issue.”

Atascadero State Hospital

San Luis Obispo County is unusual from a law enforcement perspective because it is the location of Atascadero State Hospital, one of five state hospitals. Atascadero State “provides inpatient forensic services for adult males who are court committed from throughout the State of California,” according to its web site. “The majority of the patient population (capacity 1,275 beds) consists of: mentally ill inmates; mentally disordered offenders; patients who have been found incompetent to stand trial; and patients who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.” Patients need to be stabilized with medication. They often pose a threat to themselves and others.

A standing shortage of psychiatrists and a staff spread thin have resulted in fewer patients admitted to the facility. Still, with reduced capabilities and a full patient load, working at Atascadero State has occasionally proved dangerous to doctors, staff and inmates.

For Parkinson, who has been dealing with Atascadero State for some time, it’s an all too familiar pattern: Patients are sent there because they’ve been deemed incompetent to stand trial or be prosecuted for a crime because of their mental illness. Then, Parkinson said, they commit another crime by assaulting a staff member, and because Atascadero State doesn’t have an inside lockdown facility, that person is brought to county jail and booked for a crime.

“Which is really ironic,” he said, “considering they’re already in there (at Atascadero State) because they’re not [legally] capable of committing a crime, now they’ve just been booked for committing another crime that they’re not capable of.”

The ironies begin to pile up, one on top of the other. At Atascadero State, if patients are not taking medication voluntarily, they can be force-medicated to stabilize them. That’s not the case in county jail.

“They come down to a facility that is not really set up for the mentally ill, especially that level, and then we can’t force-medicate them,” Parkinson said. “We can only provide voluntary medication. So if they don’t take their medication, they continue to degrade.

“It’s just a vicious loop, and it’s frustrating because it is no solution for the problem.”

Parkinson has been working directly with Governor Brown’s office to deal with the impacts of Atascadero State on the county jail system, and they’ve been helpful, he said.

“We’ve gone from—at times we’ve had in the tens to upwards of almost 20 in custody from Atascadero State—down to a very few. I think at the last count I asked for a couple of weeks ago, we had one from Atascadero State in the (jail) hospital. So that’s a unique problem to us in this county. Couple that with the local problem that everybody’s experiencing, and it’s just a issue.”

Mass shootings

Parkinson is candid about the state of America’s mental illness treatment capabilities. He believes the vicious loop has a momentum that is difficult to stop with legislation and lockup alone.

“I personally believe that our mental health situation throughout the country has been getting worse. We have some obvious indicators of that.

“A while back (in February 2013) I sent a letter (to Vice President Joe Biden) regarding gun control. Obviously, people could interpret that letter the way they want. My problem, not to roll this into a gun-control issue by any means, was the fact that we look for a simple solution to a complex problem, and when you talk about the school shootings that have occurred, those people have been mentally ill, and yet we are trying to regulate our way out of it, and that was the issue I had.”

The extreme cases of school shootings are deeply emotional to everyone, and the typical reaction, Parkinson said, is to attempt “to solve this with regulation, and it’s no resolution to the problem. They’ll never regulate their way out of a situation involving the mentally ill. They have to take a multi-tiered approach.”

Nationally, the high rate of mental illness in jails reflects their role in the criminal justice system. According to the National Sheriffs Association study, jails are a hub. They receive offenders after an arrest and hold them for a short period of time (usually less than a year) pending arraignment, trial, conviction or sentencing, and hold mentally ill persons pending a move to an appropriate mental health facility. State and Federal prisoners typically serve more than one year.

Dealing with the mentally ill in the public sector, on the street on a daily basis, is also a serious concern for local law enforcement. Parkinson said a typical situation starts with someone constantly trespassing because he or she is sleeping on the steps of a closed business and the police are called. If that person doesn’t leave the premises, they are arrested for trespassing and end up in county jail.

“They’re kind of the other extreme. It’s a quality of life, petty crime, but because of their mental illness they end up in county jail. And again,” he emphasizes, “we’re regulating something that we’re never going to get a handle on by arresting our way out of it or regulating our way out of it, and we just don’t seem to get it.

“It’s a point of frustration with all the sheriffs because no matter what size your jail is, you have a percentage of your jail that is mentally ill, and they require special treatment, special care and special security; because in some cases they’re extremely violent and require two staff members to move them when they come out of their cell.

“In some cases they are at the point where they’re rubbing feces all over of the jail and themselves, so we have to get them out, clean them up, clean their cell out, put them back, and they repeat the same behavior. So they’re obviously suffering from severe mental illness, and none of our jails are really built to deal with it.”

No full-time psychiatrist

SLO County Jail holds a daily average of about 750 prisoners, men and women, some with various degrees of mental disabilities. A new, expanded women’s jail for 200 female inmates, which should relieve the overcrowding that existed in the old women’s jail, is under construction and expected to be operational in late 2016. However, generally speaking, rolling out current statistical trends through the second half of the decade predetermines that the prospects for significantly lowering the actual numbers of mentally ill that pass through our jails and prisons remain dim, unless the focus sharpens on solutions that are implemented and begin to chip away at the problem, Parkinson said.

“First, it starts with recognizing that we have an issue and not reacting emotionally with simple solutions to a more difficult problem. Second, we’ve got to realize that in many cases these people are patients, not necessarily inmates. So how do you treat a patient? Obviously by getting him in an environment that’s conducive to them improving their mental illness, in some cases (receiving) medication.”

County jail doesn’t have a psychiatrist on staff at all times, so patients can’t be force-medicated, even when it’s best for them. Medicating them doesn’t mean placing them in a vegetative state; it means they’re behaving, and “that helps improve their understanding of the situation they’re in and their ability to make decisions on their own,” Parkinson said.

“That requires money. You’ve got to have a full-time psychiatrist in the jail, and that’s expensive. We have limited visits from a psychiatrist. We have four full-time mental health therapists in the jail, and we’re challenged by that.”

California courts recognize this challenge, since it is a judge that determines if a person is incapable as a result of mental illness, where they need to go next, and for how long. They could be sent to the 1,287-patient-capacity Patton State Hospital in San Bernadino, a major psychiatric institution, or back to mental health for focused treatment. Yet neither the 14- or 16-bed mental health facility, nor Patton, has the room to house them, said Parkinson.

“So we’re on this waiting list and, of course, the (patients) are longer and longer in jail and deteriorating.

“Then the defense attorney says that the sheriff has not moved this person from the jail, and the judge says (to me), ‘why haven’t you moved this person out of jail into a facility?’ and I say, ‘because I don’t get to force my way into these facilities and drop him off on the doorstep.’ If there’s no room and they’re not going to accept him, I’ve got no choice but to continue to house them.

“It’s a huge challenge, and that’s kind of what we presented to the Governor; that we have to come up with other solutions.”

Prisoners in line for breakfast at CMC, December 2013. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)
Prisoners in line for breakfast at CMC, December 2013. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)

Complex local situation

Located practically across Highway 1 from the County Sheriff’s Department and jail, three miles north of San Luis Obispo, is the CMC, the California Men’s Colony, a sprawling state prison where a new 50-bed mental health center opened in August 2013. [As of February 18, 2014, CMC’s mental health outpatient population was 1,416 and inpatient 48. On February 7, CMC had 42.5 psychologists, 20 social workers and 18.25 psychiatrists.] The CMC facility would seem to be a natural option for the county’s mentally ill inmates, but Parkinson explains that despite the close proximity that’s not how it works out in reality.

“The problem is with the prison count,” he said. “Three federal judges are watching the numbers going into the institutions. Now when something happens at Atascadero State, the easiest solution is you don’t bring them to our facility, you bring them to CMC, into their lockdown mental health facility.

“(But) that means you’re adding numbers to CMC’s count, which is really counter to what the judges are prescribing to the state. So it creates a real dilemma for them as well. We don’t have enough mental health hospital beds, either at the local or state level. We have a growing issue and we’re not prepared to treat it.”

Meanwhile, on the street on SLO, where 90% of the homeless are unsheltered, the mentally ill homeless continue to impact local law enforcement, generating calls to police because citizens either feel threatened by their behavior, or believe the person in question really needs help.

“We go out there (when called),” Parkinson said, “and they don’t qualify as somebody that can be taken to mental health; because they’re definitely suffering from mental illness, but they can take care of themselves to some degree as prescribed by law, and we can’t take people and say, ‘you really need help and we’re locking you down.’ In many cases they are camping out. A lot of them are trespassing type offenses, or they’re walking out in the middle of traffic, not trying to hurt themselves, but just because of their mental illness.”

While most mentally ill people are not dangerous, thousands are institutionalized by court order because they are a danger to themselves and others, and about 10% of homicides and countless suicides can be attributed to individuals suffering from serious mental illness, including the commission of shocking crimes that devastate our society.

“Putting it in perspective, we have a little of both,” Parkinson said. “We have the high-end ones illustrated by the school shootings. Sandy Hook is a great example. [Adam Lanza] was diagnosed with mental illness and decides he’s going to go out and commit the ultimate crime and kill people. He’s not concerned with whether or not he can have a loaded gun in public or even have a gun, and one certainly could argue that his mother probably never should have had guns in the house. Not a good combination.

“But the reality is that’s an extreme case of mental illness that is repeating itself throughout our society, and most or our school shootings and/or mass shootings involve mental illness. So I think we have both extremes, and we certainly have something in the middle.”

When working in jail with mentally ill inmates, the risk of violence is real. A few weeks earlier, one of Parkinson’s deputies was assaulted, a female deputy by a female inmate, leaving scratches all over her face. “It’s not uncommon to have issues like that,” he said. “In that case it’s not a trespassing charge per se now. Now it’s raised the bar to combative and violent, and we’re tasked with caring for these people.”

Outpatient care

Parkinson makes a case for the effectiveness of outpatient treatment. The Sheriff’s Department works with outside mental health facilities to relieve pressure on a crowded jail system not built to provide for the mentally ill, and to get patients the focused treatment they need.

“We work as closely with them as possible,” he said, citing the success they’ve had with San Luis Obispo-based nonprofit, Transitions-Mental Health Association, which offers programs at more than 35 locations in San Luis Obispo and North Santa Barbara counties.

Transitions-Mental Health recently held a class in jail, and about 37% of those that went through the class have since been released from custody and made contact with Transitions for treatment, “which is a huge step,” Parkinson said. “They’re getting the mental health programming in the jail, and now they transition out of custody, and actually made contact, which is ultimately what we really push them to do.

“We also have a half-time deputy that does nothing but work in partnership with mental health in the field. Her job is to identify the people out on the street, try to get them into outpatient treatment, and see if they can get treated out in the field so they don’t end up in custody. For the ones in custody, she works directly with our mental health therapist inside to transition them when they come out in getting them to mental health treatment on the outside.

“Our goal is to manage them when they get out and not just say, ‘okay, you’re done, now go out.’ We really want to hand them off to our mental health people when they get out of jail to get them to continue to take medications, in some cases get them into housing when we can, and obviously treatment.”

Sheriff Parkinson, a law enforcement officer for almost 30 years, clearly recognizes the enormity of the challenge, which is why he stresses the urgency to address it and address it correctly. He sees the gaps in the system widening.

“It’s urgent because we are at capacity in the sense that we’re running out of the means to provide them with treatment as a patient. It’s always been present; we’ve always had mentally ill in jail. That’s not unusual. At some point in time that’s always going to happen, and it’s always going to happen to a percentage. That’s because they’re outside and maybe not popping up on the radar per se. Then they commit a crime that lands them in here.

“I think the way we do business, the pure volume alone, has become alarming to everybody at this point, and so that’s what makes it urgent, that we are finally starting to realize that we’ve got a problem.”

Despite the perils of his department’s task and the ongoing frustrations in trying to manage the diverse mental health needs of inmates, Parkinson believes that good communications with Governor Brown’s office will eventually lead to real solutions.

“I’m optimistic, and I only say that because of the dealings that I’ve had with his office regarding Atascadero State. We put together conference call meetings, we discussed the issues. They did take actions, and it really significantly reduced the number of people that came from Atascadero State.”

Parkinson wants to make it clear that they are not trying to pass along the problem, in this case the patient, when the patient shouldn’t be in jail.

“We’re not trying kiss off our problem on to somebody else. What trying to provide what’s in the best interests of the patient. We do that by not putting them in a facility that’s not set up and capable of providing for their health and welfare.

“The Governor responded to that, and I was very optimistic that they get it. So we’re taking some steps. When we had that discussion with the Governor a couple of weeks ago, and all the sheriffs were there—out of 58 there were probably 45 at the meeting—we all gave him the same message, and I think he heard it. Whether your jail typically houses 50 people, or is in the thousands like L.A., it’s the same problem. It’s all relative to the size of your jail.

“So the message was very clear to the Governor,” Parkinson said, “and he took it very seriously that we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to figure out a plan to solve this. We just simply cannot regulate our way out of this issue.”




Board-Rated Capacity: 646 (includes Men’s and Women’s Honor Farm)
Self-Rated Capacity: 797 (includes Men’s and Women’s Honor Farm)

As of 6:00 a.m. 768 inmates were in custody. Although the number does not exceed the Self-Rated Capacity, just because there are 797 beds available does not mean someone can be placed in each bed. Depending on the classification of the inmate, it may not be possible to place a certain inmate in the same cell with other inmates, which means that a double-bunked cell may only have one inmate. In addition, only one of the buildings (40 beds) is used for beds at the female honor farm. The second is used for programming (subtract 40 beds from total). A more telling number would be that the in-custody population this morning was 768 with 35 male inmates and 8 female inmates not having a bed and required to sleep on the floor on a floor bed with mattress.

Total mental health contacts with inmates by mental health staff:
2012, approximately 6,700 contacts
2013, approximately 7,000 contacts
(Source: Undersheriff Tim Olivas, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department)



• U.S. prisons and jails house 10 times as many people with severe mental illness than psychiatric hospitals.

• At midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails. These estimates represented 56% of State prisoners, 45% of Federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates.

• Jail inmates had the highest rate of symptoms of a mental health disorder (60%), followed by State (49%), and Federal prisoners (40%).

• Around 40% of individuals with severe mental illness have been in prison at some time in their lives. Nearly a quarter of both State prisoners and jail inmates who had a mental health problem, compared to a fifth of those without, had served three or more prior incarcerations.

• In 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005 there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans—the majority of which are filled by court-ordered forensic cases and thus are not really available.

• Female inmates had higher rates of mental health problems than male inmates (State prisons: 73% of females and 55% of males; local jails: 75% of females and 63% of males).

• State prisoners who had a mental health problem were twice as likely as those without to have been homeless in the year before their arrest (13% compared to 6%).

• Jail inmates who had a mental health problem (24%) were three times as likely as jail inmates without (8%) to report being physically or sexually abused in the past.

• The number of doctors on staff at Atascadero State Hospital has dropped about 33% since September 2012, according to an October 2013 Tribune article. The hospital, which treats mentally ill, violent offenders, has about 22.5 psychiatrists on staff, down from 33.7% in September 2012. The facility is licensed for 1,275 patients.

• Over 1 in 3 State prisoners and 1 in 6 jail inmates who had a mental health problem had received treatment since admission.

(Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2006 Special Report: “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates” and Treatment Advocacy Center, 2004-2005 data)

The ROCK Interview with Gary Freiberg

Long-time Los Osos resident Gary Freiberg is intelligent, articulate, and doesn’t suffer fools or stereotypes lightly. He has written Viewpoints in local media, appeared on radio talk shows like “Dave Congalton,” and braved the arrows of pro-sewer extremists in the media and on the blogs.

“The worst enemy of this effort IS apathy.”

Long-time Los Osos resident Gary Freiberg is intelligent, articulate, and doesn’t suffer fools or stereotypes lightly. He has written Viewpoints in local media, appeared on radio talk shows like “Dave Congalton,” and braved the arrows of pro-sewer extremists in the media and on the blogs. When he was a guest on the “Dave Congalton Show” and a caller accused Gary of potentially holding up the sewer, Gary didn’t waste anytime calling him “selfish.” Gary is not a technocrat and doesn’t pretend to be one. He is a retired financial adviser and economist who understands his community better than the politicians, and his specialty is talking dollars and sense. Gary recently launched an online petition to stop the $189 million Los Osos Wastewater Project for 5,000 homes cold in its tracks. The petition, which has an end-of-April deadline, has created a stir in Los Osos for its bold, innovative attempt to send local, state and national government the message that “other solutions are less expensive, if a solution is needed at all.” The ROCK asked Gary to explain the petition and why it is important for residents and citizens to stop the sewer and sign the petition. Following is The ROCK Q&A with Gary Freiberg:

Rock: To bring readers up to date, explain in a nutshell what your petition is all about, when and why you started it, and what your goal is. How has the petition been received so far?

Gary Freiberg: The petition I posted is to create awareness and generate discussion in the public and with 16 decision-makers of the economic concerns and consequences in San Luis Obispo County from the most expensive per capita sewer in the US, the $190 million Los Osos Sewer. An emailed copy of the online signed petition goes to the 16 officials including the five members of the Board of Supervisors, the Coastal Commission, the State Water Board, Lois Capps and others. I started the petition found on by typing “Los Osos sewer” in the search bar on January 27th hoping to speak to the humanity in one or more of the decision-makers in the various departments involved in the sewer decisions, if not the humanity then at least awareness of the economic consequences in our County from almost 5,000 households having to adjust their spending in order to pay the $250-$300 a month sewer assessment. With no paid promotion there are over 270 petition signatures. As with any issue, and certainly with the sewer issue, there are two opinions of the petition. The end date is April 27th for the listing, that will be when the verdict of how the petition was received will be final.

Your petition aims to stop the sewer. Do you think that has alarmed some people who would sign if you recognized the reality that the sewer is coming? Does the petition address the fears of rising costs that stopping the sewer stirs in some?

This proposed sewer does need to be stopped, period. Until the first shovel is dug, this proposed sewer is not a reality. The petition does not address the fears of rising costs as it is about economic consequence if this proposal is built. It is not predicated on the belief THIS sewer proposal is the only solution and it will get more expensive so must be built now. Other solutions are less expensive, if a solution is needed at all. The Tribune and New Times editorials have swayed public opinion with their ridicule of any dissonance in Los Osos. The need for media to have access to the power players creates a rule; if you want to talk with us, support us, otherwise, you don’t get in. Especially the Tribune — Stephanie Finucane, Sandra Duerr, Bruce Ray — their bias is practically criminal. Too many people take their news as gospel; it’s not, it’s collaboration between the reported and reporter.

Does your petition advocate homeowners to STOP THE SEWER, STOP THIS SEWER or STOP ANY SEWER? Though the “STOP” part of the petition is clear, there are no alternatives presented to fill the void after stopping the project. Could this also make some people hesitant to sign? Do you offer any middle ground, alternatives or solutions beyond stopping the project cold?

I am not a technical salt-water-intrusion-nitrate-kind of guy so I will not get muddled in that debate. However, I do know the group [Los Osos Sustainability Group]that is involved with that aspect has been belittled and mocked by the Tribune and others when they are a group of intelligent, committed and qualified people. There are individuals in the history of the Los Osos Battle of the Sewer who created an image that those against the sewer are wackos and whiners, but again, that’s the image assigned in the press. It truly is sad because so many families, individuals and retirees are being forced into financial instability because of political bullying and media manipulation. These residents are not extremist “Sewer Nuts,” using the term the New Times coined. How something that is going to hurt businesses, jobs and tax revenues to schools and public services programs be supported and those against so diminished is beyond my ability to answer. So yes, stop this sewer, and if there is to be one, have it be one that keeps families and retirees in their homes, preserves jobs and businesses in San Luis Obispo County and stabilizes revenues to county schools and public services.

The petition currently has a little over 270 signatures and the deadline to sign is the end of April. Since your petition is Internet based, what are you doing for outreach on the street to gather signatures of homeowners who are not Internet savvy? Are you tabling or communicating with residents through other means? How?

There are several avenues remaining to broaden public awareness. For example, thank you for this interview. As a “one man band” I can do a lot, but there are limitations. Up until now I haven’t spent any money to promote the petition. Having an Internet-based petition has many benefits; it’s limitation is for those who are not savvy a potential signature is lost. I don’t think that percentage outweighs the ability to reach people in the comfort of their own home with the additional ability to email or Facebook the petition link and multiply their signature. I believe thousands of signatures from the Internet is not unrealistic.

The label “sewer nut” has been used to diminish critics of the wastewater project. “Sewer nuts” have been described as extremists, “no-sewer” and obstructionists. Do you believe the use of these labels by the Tribune and promoters of the $189 million project to advance the project is an appropriate response to your cause? Are you concerned that you and others may be unable to shed the “sewer nut” stereotype imposed by the County on anyone criticizing the project?

It’s a trait of mankind for those who live together to form separate camps. The Tribune and New Times have inflamed the sewer issue with their slanted coverage. To show their disdain for the “pugnacious,” as Stephanie Finucane recently said of the Los Osos “anti-sewerites,” both publications have made up words because they couldn’t dig deep enough in their thesaurus to find appropriate adjectives to adequately express how screwed up they think these Los Osos people are. Since I haven’t been part of any group it is only since I posted the petition that I have had discussions and seen many residents reaction to the sewer. Ideology in a society can be led, formed by those who have the pulpit. The local media has that pulpit and has created the reality too many people have. Ironically, if they get their wish two things happen: Residents realize they have a huge bill every month, who those now in favor are stomping to pay that three hundred bucks a month, and the Tribune discovers that some of the businesses that used to advertise are no longer in business or others can’t afford the extra expense.

You’ve estimated an annual $10 million of Los Osos resident spending will be lost to the local economy due to these dollars being redirected to paying the monthly tax assessment for an overpriced sewer. Since you started the petition, has the County addressed or challenged your estimate? If not, why do you think they’ve chosen to dismiss it? Does their overall culture of silence regarding the project play any part?

Let’s first address what the $10 million is, where the money comes from. The county’s $10 million estimate is forecasting how much consumer spending in our county will be lost annually from Los Osos residents’ budgeting, “re-directing” as they call it,  their discretionary spending for things like going out to dinner, shopping, entertainment to pay their sewer assessments. The $10 million estimate is San Luis Obispo County’s conservative estimate. There’s no challenge to the figure because it’s their own. What it doesn’t include is the multiplier effect. The range is between 1.5 and 1.9 how many times a dollar “turns over” in our county. In example, an employee gets paid, goes out to eat. Restaurant gets paid, who pays employee who also got our tip. They go shopping. Store owner gets paid. And so on. So the $10 million has a $15 to $19 million a year economic consequence in our county for the next 30 to 40 years. That means jobs, businesses, tax revenues to schools and public services, the ripple effect impacts thousands of peoples lives for a long time.

I don’t know if there is a code of silence but I think the Board of Supervisors would discuss their sex lives before they’d talked about the economic consequences of their actions.

Many homeowners say, “I’ve had enough. We’ve waited decades to have this sewer built. No more waiting.” Exasperation has been building for 30 years. What do you say to those who followed the project through 2011, and after votes, permits and funding are lined up, see you as Johnny-come-lately who missed the opportunity to do something when it really could have mattered?

I have learned many people do feel they have had enough. It’s more than unfortunate, it’s shocking but understandable. But to give up, to give in, to support a project that is going to change parent’s financial stability and how that affects kids and everyday life for most of the 5,000 households paying the assessment, that’s difficult to understand. I believe one day many will regret their support. As for my timing, at one time the monthly assessment was affordable, the debate issues were based on need, location and methodology. During the years the battle has been fought it has become more expensive to live in every respect. The two sides fighting each other have been so determined to win, the changed economics have been a secondary, if thought of at all concern. There’s not any time when either side would have stopped battling and agree the project has gotten too expensive for the average family and they both need to pivot. Until the first shovel is dug this is a proposal. The County has borrowed $22 million so far; they need to stop further borrowing and spending. There should be millions of dollars from the recently imposed tax assessment that was collected in January to pay down this debt. Continue the assessment until the debt is paid and start over. As impossible as that sounds, it’s not. If I didn’t believe there is a chance that with enough signatures one of the 16 receiving the petition would stop and ask the Board of Supervisors questions concerning the economic consequences and perhaps decide not to authorize more loans until the questions are answered, I wouldn’t make this effort. The Board of Supervisors hired someone from the USDA who had the contacts to arrange $80 million in loans from the agency — without that guy the loans wouldn’t have been made. The consequences of their actions will be felt long after they leave office if the proposed sewer is built. The last thing anyone connected to our local economy should think is game over in Los Osos, and do nothing. This is a County issue that residents outside of Los Osos for their own future job stability need to take about three minutes to read and sign the petition we’re discussing.

In a recent op-ed you wrote, “The worst enemy to this effort is apathy.” Given the wastewater project has already met project milestones and a successful Proposition 218 assessment vote before you started the petition, and homeowners had already been through the County’s painful “process” of disenfranchisement, is it possible at this point to make residents less apathetic? Do you see any danger in fostering false hope for homeowners at this late date?

My objective is not to create false hope, but to raise questions that the Board of Supervisors, Lois Capps or anyone else in the decision-making process should have asked but haven’t. The worst enemy of this effort IS apathy. Many see obstacles as walls, not hurdles. Because residents are fed up with the sewer project and have relented, I don’t believe the majority of Los Osos/Baywood Park residents know of the economic impact the sewer is forecast to have in our county and very possibly on their life. Many fog over when the sewer topic comes up because of being fed up. My effort is to spin the direction of the person who has thrown up their hands and wants the whole sewer thing over with. Who can relate to or care about nitrate levels when you can go to your tap and drink the water? What I hope residents and others can relate to is the County is going to dig deep into our pockets, and they don’t care how it affects you, your family or your business. We become less apathetic with things that affect us, otherwise, it’s someone else’s problem. Hopefully, more will see how the $190 million debt affects them and will take a few minutes to sign a petition in the convenience of their home.

Your petition is available on, a web site that allows people to create petitions and mobilize support online? Why did you select this as your primary method to send such an important community message to government? Could the petition backfire and its results be misused by the County as a referendum for the sewer validating their position — and against the majority of the community that can’t afford the sewer?

I chose after Bank of America changed their mind to charge a $5 a month debit-card fee when someone posted a petition on the site and got enough signatures to get BoA to back down. There’s three outcomes for the petition; ignored by all 16 receiving it, used by the county if not a lot of signatures, or be successful in increasing awareness of the economic consequences in San Luis Obispo County from the Los Osos sewer and force the Board of Supervisors to address the various economic issues, like how are they going to mitigate to business and jobs for the $10 million of lost consumer spending and how are they going to replace the lost tax revenues to school and public services programs? The upside potential is much greater than the downside because the Board doesn’t respect or recognize the economic issues anyway, so what’s to lose? They don’t deem the economic issues worthy of discussion. My greatest hope is for the petition to cause that discussion.

Do you believe the County’s assurances that they will provide assistance to low-income residents who experience economic hardship because of the sewer? And will County assistance even matter in making a real difference in allowing more homeowners to stay in Los Osos?

It is estimated 20% to 30% of Los Osos residents can not afford the increased sewer assessments. I don’t believe assistance to low-income people will benefit many. Los Osos is a solid middle-class community. Most households are between those who are low income and the well off. An extra $250 to $300 a month sewer bill will make a big difference to families, individuals and retirees. Those who can manage paying the assessments will cut spending elsewhere to budget for the expense. Again, that projection is $10 million a year of lost consumer spending for the next 30 to 40 years.

Based on your estimates, can you project, in your opinion, what the Los Osos community we know today will look like in five years? Or 10 years?

A lot of people saying, “Remember when you could see the bay from here?” or “Remember the trees that used to be there?” or “Remember Dave and Sue, wonder how they and the kids are doing, where did they move to again?” And what will the Board of Supervisors look like then? A lot different I hope.

The County says the assessment will be $166 a month, not $250 to $300 as you’ve written. Why do your figures differ?

The recent assessment implemented for the sewer is $780 a year, about $73 per month. The Board of Supervisors have borrowed $22 million. Am I to believe that with another $165 million mostly in loans to go the assessments will only go up another $93 a month? There’s also no allowing for cost overruns. A project as huge as $190 million will never come in as estimated. There’s no allowance for changes or the unexpected; if that happens and the cost goes above $190 million then Los Osos households are responsible. I believe saying $250 to $300 a month is too low as there are also hook-up costs, but going into too much detail generates the fog-over. The monthly costs will far exceed the $166 the county says it will. It’s easier for them to get acceptance and ridicule dissonance by saying the cost is lower than what it actually will be. This higher cost only magnifies the economic consequence to all of San Luis Obispo County.

The Rock Interview: Dr. Dan Wickham

When Dr. Wickham spoke for the LOCSD and community at the televised Los Osos Cease and Desist Order hearings on April 28, he gave the Regional Water Board a very important science lesson in how septic tanks work that they either skipped or didn’t expect. Now school’s out for the Water Board to weigh the Blakesee proposal to freeze enforcement, or until they can locate an expert to counter Dr. Wickham’s irrefutable scientific evidence against the board’s actions, which will take a lot longer than it will take to build a sewer in Los Osos. But it wasn’t just what Dr. Wickham said, as profound as it was considering the venue, the moment and what’s at stake, but how he said it—knowledgably, clinically, simply, graciously—yet very firmly. For the beleaguered CDO recipients, his testimony was the first real ray of hope on an otherwise bleak moonscape, elevating Dr. Wickham to a Paul Bunyan with brains—a giant killer—in the battle for truth in Los Osos. The Rock revisits that fateful April day with Dr. Wickham when he stopped “The Show” by blinding them with science, and at the same time we asked him quite a few more questions than the Water Board did about septic solutions for Los Osos, as well as how the county takeover might impact the Los Osos sewer project.

When Dr. Wickham spoke for the LOCSD and community at the televised Los Osos Cease and Desist Order hearings on April 28, he gave the Regional Water Board a very important science lesson in how septic tanks work that they either skipped or didn’t expect. Now school’s out for the Water Board to weigh the Blakesee proposal to freeze enforcement, or until they can locate an expert to counter Dr. Wickham’s irrefutable scientific evidence against the board’s actions, which will take a lot longer than it will take to build a sewer in Los Osos. But it wasn’t just what Dr. Wickham said, as profound as it was considering the venue, the moment and what’s at stake, but how he said it—knowledgably, clinically, simply, graciously—yet very firmly. For the beleaguered CDO recipients, his testimony was the first real ray of hope on an otherwise bleak moonscape, elevating Dr. Wickham to a Paul Bunyan with brains—a giant killer—in the battle for truth in Los Osos. The Rock revisits that fateful April day with Dr. Wickham when he stopped “The Show” by blinding them with science, and at the same time we asked him quite a few more questions than the Water Board did about septic solutions for Los Osos, as well as how the county takeover might impact the Los Osos sewer project.

Q. How did you come to testify before the RWQCB on April 28th? Were you invited? Please explain by who and how.

A. I had already had a significant interaction with the Los Osos CSD because of our earlier Response to their RFP for an update on their earlier sewer project. We had installed a demonstration project for our SludgeHammer device at the Fire Station and it was through these contacts that the idea of me providing expert testimony at the CDO hearing arose. I did it largely as a favor to the community since there was no money available for it.

Q. Did you at any time ever look around the hearing room and realize you were the only “expert witness” called upon to testify for the community? Did you wonder why?

A. Frankly, I was a bit surprised by the lack of professional expertise at the hearing, both from the perspective of the Regional Board, and from the community. I could understand the community’s lack of representation because it looked to me as if they had been abandoned by the “professional” community. I have seen similar situations where non-professional citizens create their own expertise by dint of hard work and dedication. The cards are always stacked against them, but they often win. Bolinas, up in Marin County went through the same process in the ’80s and ’90s and defeated a similar line-up of political powers to preserve their community’s integrity. They all became far more expert in on-site and centralized sewer issues than any of them ever wanted to. But they had to.  

Q. Did you feel that some of the questions asked of you by the Water Board’s attorneys should have been asked long before they leveled CDOs against individual homeowners for allegedly polluting the groundwater? What could you infer or surmise, if anything, from the questions they asked you?

A. Most of the pertinent questions were asked by the CSD attorneys or citizens facing CDOs. I was surprised by the lack of serious questioning by the Board’s attorneys. I was expecting a much more hostile and intense grilling. The best questions came from the Board members themselves and not from the staff. This convinced me that the staff was just out on a hunt and the board was completely taken aback by their lack of preparation.

Q. In your opinion, does the lack of scientific data and direct evidence on the RWQCB’s part in any way undermine the validity and credibility of their case? Do they simply presume too much?

A. All of us must understand a simple fact. Board members are non-professional citizens placed in an uncomfortable position of authority. They can only rely on the advice of their staff.  In this case I think they were very poorly served by their staff. There still is a very significant argument to be made against the notion that any of the nitrate contamination is due to septics.  Sure, it seems likely, but their data never would have stood up to the type of scrutiny that I faced both as a graduate student at Berkeley, or as a research scientist for the UC system. If any of the staff had attempted to present their arguments at an AAAS or National Academy conference they would have been stripped bare and run out of the auditorium. Unfortunately, state regulatory agencies operate in a safe, unquestioned environment. They do not face the rigors of criticism that we University researchers take as a matter of course. It would serve them well to require the same kind of public argumentation that University faculty members need to face to get their tenure.  

Q. Barring acceptance of the Blakeslee proposal, the RWQCB plans to start its prosecution all over again in September. Not to help them make their case, but what do they need to do, in your opinion, to validate their claims? Or would you recommend they abandon this punitive approach entirely—and start negotiating?

A. For the life of me I can see absolutely no value in pursuing this course. The CSD has already responded to most of their demands. Ripley Engineers is updating the sewer study. They are responding to on-site systems that they manage. In fact, one of those is being taken care of by my company. Incidentally, a lysimeter placed just one foot below the leach bed at the Fire Station shows that we already are down to a level of less than 2 mg/l of total nitrogen in the effluent passing down to the aquifer from that system.  What’s their problem? I do not want to jeopardize my own opportunities but, frankly, I think this entire situation is childish. I grant that the Board is rightly miffed at how long this issue has festered. But, they must see by now that the community was completely in the right to stop the absolutely illegal and immoral juggernaut they were facing. I am a taxpaying citizen and I absolutely abhor the behavior of the engineering/development cabal that has forced our small communities to build obscenely overpriced central sewers that frequently cause more pollution than they cure.

Q. I know you recommend an isotope-tracking test to track the discharge plume to get a better “picture” of the alleged pollution trail. What other reliable tests would be useful in helping either side clarify the information being used to evaluate and assign responsibility for alleged polluting (if it even substantially exists to a degree that can then be “traced” to Los Osos septics)?

A. Los Osos already assumes it is guilty as charged. If it was proved to be the case, they would act no differently than they are now. If it were proved, however, that they were not, the egg on the faces of everybody who has profited from this debacle would be so thick they could only bring the eggs in with C5-A transports. Woe to the regulators if the cat comes out of the bag.  

But, outside of isotope studies, it would be a difficult and expensive study to confirm or deny the source of the pollution. I faced a similar dilemma when I was a fisheries biologist looking into the cause of the collapse of the Dungeness Crab fishery in the San Francisco Bay region. A really comprehensive study would have cost more than the resource was worth. Some times we simply have to accept ignorance and just act in good faith. Still, the isotope study is the best way to go since, even if it does not prove the case, it is less expensive than the alternatives.     

Q. In all your years of experience, have you ever seen or heard of homeowners (as opposed to an agency or company) being issued CDOs for allegedly polluting? Have you ever seen or heard of eminent domain by septics? If yes to either question, please explain.
A. No, No and No. Citizens served by on-site systems are particularly at risk. They are isolated and solitary. They have the full force of the state coming down on them. Unlike a sewer district, with thousands of individuals linked by a PUC and a municipal district, septic owners have a lonely fight. In a just world every one of the CDOs would be suing the state for every dollar it has. Unfortunately they would be suing for their own money. Alex de Toqueville said way back in the early 1800s, after his travels in the US, that when the government discovered that it could bribe the people using their own money, democracy as we know it was gone. Well, our government has been doing it for over 200 years and they get more and more of our money to bribe us with each day. The newest twist is to use our money to extort and browbeat us. I don’t think even de Toqueville expected that.

Q. Outside of quoting you and putting you on the stand again, what do you think would help the community shore up its defense, scientifically and technically, for any next round of hearings?

A. Fight the injustice of punishing individuals who are living in homes that have septic systems that the Regional Board permitted in the first place. I know lawyers who specialize in Federal Clean Water Act violations. They would be salivating at the chance to sue the Regional Board and the County of San Luis Obispo for creating the pollution in the first place. The harder the Regional Board works to prove the pollution, the bigger the settlement could become. The community has the strongest defense possible. They relied on the Regional Board for the septic permits in the first place. They are not guilty. The Board is.

Q. Do you think it’s “appropriate” that the Water Board’s action unilaterally voids one specific portion of a broader permit that is legally issued by another regulatory body without any formal action by that other body, and that the Water Board never, in the intervening 23 years, considered it relevant or appropriate to require that body to modify its permits, and to formally notify the holders of those permits of such modification, or to enjoin that body from continuing to issue such permits?

A. As Matt Thompson, of the Board staff stated, the ‘Prohibition Zone’ was established not to enforce, but to insure that someday, if they chose, they could prosecute without the nasty burden of proof. There is nothing even remotely legal or constitutional about the ‘Prohibition Zone.’ It has just never had a chance to be slapped down by the courts.

Q. Is it possible that wastewater treatment technology has advanced so substantially over the past 15 years or so that, at least for Los Osos, the “idea” of an expensive centralized sewer system has been superceded by technology that allows every septic to be upgraded to serve as an individual high-tech “sewer” unit that can do the job cheaper and maybe better than the mega sewer? In hindsight, perhaps an expensive centralized sewer was never the best answer for Los Osos then…and 30 years later?

A. This is a tough question.  If one were to prove that other sources were responsible for the nitrates, still an open question, then a central sewer is absolutely one of the most profound wastes of public funds imaginable. If they are proved to be a problem, then 20 or 30 years ago a sewer would have made sense. On-site was regarded by the EPA, back in the early ’70s when the Clean Water Act was passed, to be temporary stop-gap systems until that heavenly day in the year 2000 when everybody in the US would be on a centralized system. At that time 25% of the US population was on septic. In 1998 Congress asked the EPA for an update on their prediction of universal sewering. Well, it turned out that now 27% of the population was on septic, or on-site. What they did not realize was that there were several more sophisticated alternatives to septic tanks. But the real burst of creativity in on-site engineering occurred after the 1998 report. It suddenly became respectable to design on-site systems, and the industry has jumped into the void, now that EPA has admitted that on-site can be a permanent solution. In fact, more creativity is coming from on-site engineers than the “big pipe” folks. Companies like Montgomery-Watson just want to charge an arm and a leg for stuff they take off the shelf. Their shareholders sure don’t want them to waste time and money actually engineering anything.

But even “centralized” systems do not necessarily resemble their earlier prototypes.  Gravity sewers are dinosaurs, absolutely. STEP/STEG type of systems allow real flexibility, with treatment starting at the household, where it should start. The whole system should be integrated. Not the old model of collection, treatment and disposal as separate and totally isolated processes.

Q. Since you mentioned at the hearings that there are many cost-effective measures for on-site mitigation in use all over the country, is it safe to assume the RWQCB ignored this entire genre of remediators? Why?

A. California likes to think of itself as progressive. It was back in Pat Brown’s days. It has not been progressive in nearly a half century. I cannot think of a single state in the union, save Alabama, where they let you discharge your septic straight into the creek, or your neighbor’s property, as benighted as California with regard to on-site management.  I do not think they ignore all that much. They just do not have a clue. Why travel to Maryland to learn about on-site when your can go to Hollywood, or Disneyland. California has a terrible problem with over inflated egos. It’s just our way.

Q. Is it possible that the small-scale treatment center concept could be workable in much of Los Osos, i.e. finite clusters where the pollution is highest? Could the effluent then be dispersed in subsurface drip irrigation fields and provide landscape irrigation, with whatever is not evapotranspirated leaching into the groundwater through some prescribed minimum soil depth, delivering a vanishingly small amount of pollution with it?

A. Absolutely. In case no one has noticed, the Regional Board has already permitted such a system right in Los Osos at the Monarch Grove Plant. They do not use subsurface irrigation but they get full credit for nitrogen reduction through vegetative uptake. After all, a golf course uses a lot of fertilizer. What better way to recapture the value of these incredibly costly and rare resources.

Q. What are the primary approaches the town could take to include on-site systems in a program that works and works well?

A. Ask that any system be cost effective, and that it be compatible with a centralized system, or at least able to be integrated into a community-wide solution.  

Q. Does a $200-$300 million wastewater facility guarantee ending up with low nitrate levels? Based on your on-the-ground evaluation, do you think the gravity collection system is “right” for Los Osos?

A. I read the EIR pretty carefully when we prepared our proposal for the Project Update.  Montgomery Watson notes in their proposal for the Broderson leachfield, that since nitrate levels in the leachate beneath the site might exceed 20 mg/l there would be a need for a multi-million dollar extraction well and water treatment system just downslope from the site. What gives? The waste-discharge requirement was 7 mg/l of total nitrogen and the site is virgin. Who’s kidding whom? You do not get 20 mg/l of nitrogen when you start with 7.  Well, maybe they came up with a special new way to create nitrogen fertilizer. I am ready to invest when they prove it.

Q. In light of the county takeover of the sewer project, how do you see this new layer of government impacting the recent progress made by the LOCSD to develop a sewer system for Los Osos? As far
as you can see, where are we headed on this sudden change of course?

A. I really don’t know if the Blakeslee plan will be helpful or not. For one, I would certainly be uncomfortable on granting an entity like the county the authority to design and implement a project for Los Osos, if they had no tax obligation for the ultimate implementation of the plan. It is a bit like giving someone else the authority to build your house, but you end up paying for it whether you like the design or not. Somehow that seems unworkable.
It is possible, however, that since Los Osos could accept or reject the plan on a Prop 218 vote, they could insure that the design be more workable.
There also is the issue of stopping current design contracts. Our company bid on the project that Dana Ripley is doing. I know how I would feel if it suddenly were ended and I was only part way through.

My primary concern over this still goes back to the issue of documenting the source of the nitrate pollution. If, as part of the county study, they actually undertook the necessary characterization of pollution I would be for it. One way to do that would be to conduct isotope studies on the nitrates in the ground water and to compare them with the other possible sources: septics, NOX from the power plant which is currently allowed to release 8,000 tons (that’s 16 million pounds a year of non-degradable oxidized nitrogen), as well as the substantial agricultural component from immediately upstream of the aquifer.

We have a similar issue up here in Monte Rio on the Russian River. The county created a septic crisis by fiat, not by research. There is no evidence of the pollution they claim. Their sewer plant is designed to promote development. If they admitted that and built it on that basis I would have no problem. Communities should be allowed to develop if they choose to. But clearly the development interests feared going this way because it would require and informed choice by the public and they might lose. So, raise the red flag of ‘pollution’ and the community cannot resist it.

It is well past time for someone to document what the real conditions are in Los Osos. I am sure that isolated pockets are being impacted by septics. But does that require a sewer for everybody or smaller clustered treatment systems for those areas that are proven to be impacted.

I was a University researcher and we always studied things in detail. It was frustrating to see the level of science in the regulatory community, and we never seemed to get them to realize that our universities and research institutes are the places to get this type of work done. Why aren’t RFPs going out to the UC system and Cal Poly for this work?

Q. What do you think is the best way to handle the septic tank problem in Los Osos? What is your “big picture” “septic solution” for Los Osos?

A.  First, I would like to see a series of isotope studies undertaken to demonstrate that doing anything at all will actually solve the nitrate issue. If it is caused by ancient buried wetlands, or power plant nitrous oxide, or agricultural runoff from inland, or from auto exhaust NOX, then no matter what is done to septics will be of no use. I am not saying septics are not at fault, I am simply saying that no one has demonstrated it to the level of proof that we, in the University, demand of all data presented to us. Nitrogen isotope ratios are easy to sample and you can compare those found in the ground water with the potential sources, and I mean all of the potential sources, not just septic tanks. 

Still, a strong case can be made for a rational centralized system. STEP/STEG systems allow the community to use the existing tanks as the most important part of the treatment. Technologies like ours can improve the situation by starting the treatment upstream so that the system will significantly lower maintenance costs. In fact, a collection system that leads to ponds out in the eastern boundary of the town could provide nitrogen enriched reclaimed water to the agricultural community at great benefit. One must consider that the option chosen by the Regional Board, namely microbiological “denitrification” is an energy-intensive process. First, one must burn huge volumes of fossil fuel to generate the electricity needed to oxidize not just the organic carbon, but also the ammonia in the wastewater. So a traditional sewer plant spews CO2 into the atmosphere to create more CO2 from the organic waste, plus more CO2 to create the NO3, or nitrate, in the treated water. Then they have to redirect the NO3 back to a holding tank with more organic carbon, which they just got rid of in the aerobic treatment system. This is because the NO3 cannot be converted to nitrogen gas unless it goes into an anaerobic, carbon rich environment.

Yes, it’s complicated. No wonder it’s so expensive.

But what are they really doing. All that organic nitrogen came from our wastes. We got it from a fertilizer factory that burned fossil fuels to generate electricity so they could capture nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it to ammonia fertilizer. Why not just use it to grow plants with non-denitrified reclaimed wastewater. We eliminate tons of CO2 by just feeding the plants what they need.  In fact I estimated that Los Osos alone could offset thousands of tons of CO2 by sending a lower level of treated water to your agricultural neighbors.

From a “big picture” perspective the easiest solution would be to go back to the CSD wells in the upper aquifer and immediately begin using this water for all outside use in the community. The nitrate is there, no matter its source, and using it as fertilizer for landscape would achieve several benefits.  First it would increase the amount of evapotranspiration, thus drying out the high groundwater in the upper aquifer while removing the nitrates through vegetative uptake. Second, it would immediately reduce the draw on the lower aquifer, thus reversing the salt water intrusion. That water should only be for in-house potable use. Third, the CSD could do this without any involvement with the Regional Board. It is a simple matter of separating the indoor from the outdoor plumbing at the houses and re-activating the old wells. I am sure that there are abundant grant sources for such a project.

Q. Let’s nail down this “pumping every other month” plan. What does pumping every other month do to mature bio colonies…septic efficiency…nitrate reduction… pathogen reduction? If pumping septics every other month has these ramifications, and assuming the board knew at least some of this going in, what conclusion, what “sense of events” can you draw, if any, as to their reasons for ordering mass pumping in the first place? A pressure tactic?

A. Septic tanks are fragile beasts. They really are there for one purpose, to provide a buffer and conduit for getting our wastes back to the natural environment. Back before agriculture made cities possible humans did what the bears did. And we all know that bears shit in the woods. The surface of the soil is rich in bacteria, carbon from dead leaves, fungus, insects, worms, protozoans, etc. The day we chose to flush everything with water, we locked ourselves out of the best biological venue for treatment. Water cannot hold oxygen in high enough concentrations but the surface soils can. Septics were pretty good, since they started the process anaerobically, causing the wastes to liquefy. Then they could go out to the soil, and air could penetrate the soil and do a pretty good job of cleaning up.  But we just have too many people on this earth now. Where is ZPG anymore? Does anyone talk about over population?  I sure am not hearing it. 

Nevertheless, septic tanks are always on the knife-edge of survival. Protect them and they work, to a limit. But start pumping every two months and you destroy just about any benefit they can provide.  Estimates say it
can take one to two years to get a good anaerobic community established. Actually I think that is probably an overestimate. But there is no way you can get biological treatment in a septic tank in just two months. And if there is no treatment then the only benefit you get is from the 1,000 gallons you remove at each pumping. The other 18,000 gallons during the rest of the two months, now has virtually no treatment, so you have gone from bad to worse in the process.

The Board staff knew it when they recommended it. They quote a paper published about research at the Massachusetts Buzzard’s Bay site to justify their claim that septic tanks only remove 1%-3% percent of the nitrogen load. They studiously overlook the fact that in this very same paper it was found that the soil under the leach field removed 21%-25% of the nitrogen and that a subsurface Geoflow drip field removed 42%. We conducted a study at that very same site, in fact the very same septic tanks and leachfields, and showed our technology removed 80%-99% of the nitrogen as it passed through the soil. The staff knows this. They chose to ignore it. You conclude what their motive is.  

Dr. Dan Wickham PhD is a principal partner in Kenwood, California-based ABG Wastewater Solutions Inc. (ABG WWS). He is co-inventor of the Pirana bio-remediator and the inventor of the biological aspects of the Aerobic Bacterial Generator. The Pirana prototype was launched in 2000. More than 1,500 Pirana systems have been installed by Dr. Wickham and associates over a time span of five years to customers that include families, businesses and institutions. For more information on ABG WWS or the Pirana, visit or write

The Rock Interview: Dr. Thomas Ruehr

Los Osos resident and Cal Poly professor Tom Ruehr has for years volunteered his time and expertise to the Los Osos community. When the County assumed control of the Los Osos sewer project on January 1 and sought applicants for its engineering Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. Ruehr again stepped forward to serve. When he heard secondhand that he had been rejected for the TAC, he proceeded to issue his critique of the “Rough Screening Analysis.” In a far-ranging, no-holds-barred interview with The Rock, Dr, Ruehr tackles “the truth about the Los Osos sewer situation,” discusses his role in the Great Debate, his views on a sewer for Los Osos, the County’s 218 vote, RWQCB, and what he believes should be done.

Q. Can you please provide me with a concise professional bio with your Los Osos history for readers?

A. Thank you for this opportunity to explain the truth about the Los Osos sewer situation from one who has experienced it from the mid-1970s to today.
I believe I am uniquely qualified to address these issues. First, I provided expert advice to the County Engineering Analytical Laboratory when they had analytical problems in testing nitrate in Los Osos. My research specialization focuses upon all biochemical and microbial transformations of nitrogen compounds in the environment.
I served as a member of the Nitrate Study of Los Osos Technical Advisory Committee. I served as a member of the Los Osos Wastewater Alternatives Technical Advisory Committee. I have served on the County Health Department’s Technical Advisory Committee on Biosolids.
I served as a chair of the Los Osos Blue Ribbon Committee on Water. I served on the Solutions Group seeking an effective wastewater treatment process for Los Osos. I served as a member of the Ripley Pacific Engineering team when they provided the recent report on alternative water treatment for Los Osos.
I am a Professor in the Earth and Soil Science Department at Cal Poly State University. I have expertise as a soil microbiologist and biochemist. I am a co-author of a book on fertigation and understand the interactions of water and nutrients. This expertise is critical to understanding the problems commonly ignored regarding the recharge of the wastewater on the sand dunes of Los Osos. Engineers have ignored several major soil problems that plague the wastewater piping and collection process and the wastewater recharge.
In addition, my understanding of microbiology provides me with a greater insight into the best way to biodegrade the sewage in the treatment plant and the subsequent decomposition of the resulting biosolids. The processing of the biosolids has been ignored by the proposed sewage treatment projects (prior to the Ripley Pacific report).

Q. What prompted you to write your “TAC Comments”? What made you feel you had to respond?

A. I firmly believe most citizens of Los Osos are being brainwashed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) staff and by County Engineering. Only part of the information is presented. I believe this has been very unethical on the part of the board staff. Their recent letter of mandate to all citizens simply affirms this belief. All citizens deserve to know the full facts.
I was asked by several members of the community and one from the TAC to provide a response. Increasingly, I have felt a great injustice is being forced upon the community. This realization has resulted from my past experience working with this community. Many times I realized the information provided by the RWQCB staff to the board with recommendations was either wrong, over emphasizing minor points, and too often glaringly failing to report contrary information. This can be supported by anyone reviewing the RWQCB reports on Los Osos and comparing what is known by the people in the community. Obviously, it was not an objective scientific process, but instead it was definitely a political process.
The RWQCB has continuously changed their criteria. The major past problem has been their absolute stupidity of rejecting all science and technology developed within the past 25 years. They have been excessively wedded only to multinational sewer companies providing sewer systems for cities of 2 million people. These processes are not appropriate for small communities of 20,000 people.

Q. Why did you apply for the TAC? What were your hopes? Expectations? How much faith did you have in “the process” going in … and now?

A. I believed I was very well qualified to provide scientific and technical information to the community. This has continually been my motivation in working for the best for Los Osos. I realized when the County formed the TAC without having an engineer as the director meant they would revert to a totally political process rather than any real interest in considering the true science and technology.  
At the time, I hoped some sense of science and technology would provide new ideas and would help our citizens to realize we are being forced by the RWQCB to accept what they want us to install.
I saw an e-mail statement from Roger Briggs (RWQCB staff director) stating effectively Los Osos is not paying nearly enough for this sewer. The RWQCB can demand the community do something, but they are legally prohibited from dictating what must be done. However, because power corrupts, they have gradually assumed more power and are exceeding their legal mandate at many levels on many issues. The California Attorney General should investigate their actions, but with the current administration, this is unlikely to happen.

Q. How were you notified you were not selected? Do you sense bias? For/against what? Do you have “history” with the County? Can you suggest any reason they would have no use for your expertise, or the expertise of Dr. John Alexander and other professionals?

A. A person who knew me called to tell me I was not selected. When I learned who had been chosen to serve on the TAC, it was obvious to me the chosen people were only people known or thought potentially to be non-critical and willing to rubber stamp what the new TAC wanted to force onto Los Osos.
After reading the recent report to the TAC, I am firmly convinced the intent is to force the Tri-W site with the deeply buried large-diameter sewer pipes working as a gravity collection and using the Broderson recharge site, plus avoiding dealing with the issue of biosolids and ignore including the cost of the homeowner connection from their homes to the system, thereby running up the price on the sewer, especially with add-ons to each home owner. The intent is to use the excuse of federal and state support for the loan as a means to have a vote for a blank check with continually escalating costs.
Clearly, the TAC mission and identification of the types of people to select was focusing not on the science and technology and mainly on how to obtain state and federal support for the loan and not related to technical information.
My first involvement in the Los Osos issue occurred unintentionally when I was consulted by the County Engineering Analytical Laboratory staff. Percy Garcia shared the County’s collected data with me. In five minutes, I was able to show how dividing the nitrate by the chloride concentration resulted in the chloride being a tracer. The numerical value decreased with depth.  From a chemical point of view, this ratio should remain constant.  From a microbiological view, if denitrification (loss of nitrate as nitrogen gas into the air) occurs, then the ratio would decrease as the nitrate disappears. This confirmed in my mind the obvious result of the County’s data and clearly indicated the septic tanks were functioning properly in Los Osos..
Subsequently, while serving on the first Nitrate Study of Los Osos Technical Advisory Committee, I was told by Percy Garcia someone higher up in County Engineering had given him a gag order preventing him from sharing any facts with me. Consequently, this was my first experience of scientists and engineers suppressing the truth to promote a pre-conceived political process regarding the Los Osos sewer.
Why have technical expertise on the committee? When the County Engineering has made up its mind about the sewer and what it should be, why be confused with the facts?  Again, this is a way of rejecting truth and affirming only the political process. This is why myself and John Alexander were rejected, and affirms why many of the other qua
lified individuals were not selected.

Q. Detractors try to dismiss your comments by labeling you a “no-sewer advocate” partly responsible for Los Osos not having a reasonable-cost sewer earlier—even though you conclude here: “I recognize a sewer is needed.” How have detractors distorted your position and how have your views changed over the past 10-15 years, if they have, regarding the need for a sewer?

A. Some people believe I have been against a sewer. I recognize a sewer is needed. I only ask for a true, open and honest assessment of every single facet of the myriad of problems related to this sewer. We owe the citizens of Los Osos the full truth—to know all of the facts and the full costs before we approve of any legislation to contract bonds for the construction of a sewer in Los Osos.
We must have some guarantee the various fatal flaws will not occur. Sufficient small businesses are in the sewer game, they probably will be willing to step forward to provide these guarantees and provide loan funds. They will do this for much less cost, with less adverse environmental impact and with much less social disruption for this community than will occur by approving the Tri-W site with the Broderson recharge and the failure to treat the biosolids problem or the initial hookups from each home to the sewer pipes.
I have always indicated some locations require a wastewater treatment process. Initially, I believed this could be achieved with local clusters of treatment processes throughout Los Osos.  As I gained information about the groundwater hydrology, it became apparent a larger treatment area would be required.
I became firmly convinced of the political process when the gerrymandered prohibition zone was defined. No rational scientific basis exists for this zone. All people in the community share the ground water, therefore all should be responsible for protecting it. This situation is a local example of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where the commons is the ground water and all are free to use it and to abuse it.
Any solution must include all homes in the Los Osos basin as part of the sewer, not simply the poor people within the prohibition zone. Interestingly, the wealthy people of Los Osos are primarily outside of the prohibition zone. If the sewer is paid for by the prohibition zone people, then these wealthy people can link up later without having to pay the major cost of the sewer. This is one reason I believe any vote taken based upon the prohibition zone is unethical.
I served on the Los Osos Wastewater Alternatives Technical Advisory Committee. This committee of 12 dedicated Los Osos citizens reached a consensus for a sewer based mainly on some of the basic ideas promoted by the recent Ripley Pacific Engineering report. This was presented to the County Board of Supervisors before the turn of the millennium. If the County had listened to us, we would now have a sewer installed and operating in Los Osos today.
Instead, the RWQCB persuaded the Engineering consultant to counter any ideas from the alternatives TAC. The Engineer used “voodoo” economics to charge the cost of the full sewer against each of the other recommended sewer processes identified by the community TAC. This made it appear all alternatives would be much more expensive, whereas they would actually be less than half the cost of what the Engineer had recommended. This “voodoo” economics was accepted by the County Board of Supervisors and served to prolong the sewer to this current date. The Solutions Group was formed and I participated with the hope of developing another alternative solution.
My involvement has often been badly misconstrued. We need a sewer. However, we do not need an excessively expensive sewer when economical alternatives are known to work effectively. I have tried to provide my insight into what scientific facts and engineering principles can be applied to the sewer design and the various components required to ensure the installed sewer would work effectively.
I was against the Tri-W site because I knew it contained many fatal flaws. I have always supported the installation of a sewer, but I am very much against the community being forced to install a sewer which will NOT solve the problems of the community. I will continue to oppose any sewer proposal where engineers fail to explain clearly to the community how every component functions effectively and how its cost has been minimized (not necessarily the cheapest) to ensure a properly operating sewer system will work.
I am very opposed to the approval of any sewer having hidden creeping costs as currently exist for the Tri-W site with the conventional sewer. As has been common recently, more and more public works are being approved with only half of the facts and the design being only partially developed. This results in constantly escalating costs to cover “unforeseen” consequences, which were actually built into the system intentionally.
This is a way to ensure future jobs for engineers to continue to correct the problems they created when they tried to correct the first fix with the engineering solution requiring another fix to fix the last fix which did not work. When does this mentality stop? Why should we as citizens allow them to screw us economically with this mentality?
I affirm my stand for common sense and for an affordable and effective wastewater treatment process for Los Osos citizens. When we are presented with one, I will campaign strongly for its passage. Until the proper sewer design is presented with a reasonable cost, I will continue to oppose the stupidity promoted over the last more than 20 years.

Q. Why should we worry about mercury from Lake Nacimiento if it’s below detectable levels?

A. The community leaders (from the very first time the issue of the sewer was raised in public discussions) realized in the late 1970s the issue was not about a sewer. They knew the head of County Engineering had been brought to San Luis Obispo to force all communities to use state water or water from Lake Nacimiento.
Nacimiento water has the fatal flaw of containing mercury. Mercury is an accumulative poison. The more water you drink, the more the mercury poison builds up inside your body. Thus, any mercury is too much mercury to allow its use by Los Osos. If we import water from Lake Nacimiento, the people in our community will slowly be poisoned by mercury in the water accumulating in our bodies. In “Alice in Wonderland,” the Mad Hatter was suffering from craziness brought on by working with mercury salts to coat beaver pelts (keeping insects and microbes from eating the pelt). These beaver pelts were used to make top hats in England.
Water from Morro Bay and Cayucos is state water. This appears to be an effort to force state water upon the citizens of Los Osos. This was the original intent of bringing the old County engineer to San Luis Obispo, to force Los Osos to have to buy into state water. Now it rears its ugly head again, this time in disguise. Cayucos and Morro Bay are underlain by serpentine rock and soils. Any water from Morro Bay and Cayucos aquifer when mixed with the state water develops a disproportionately higher level of magnesium. This high magnesium creates a variety of problems including reducing the rate of water infiltration into the soil. High magnesium in water makes people more “regular” than they may care to become.
State water is dangerous and potentially fatally flawed. The state water brought into the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles is loaded with natural organic compounds obtained when the water flows through the San Joaquin Delta Histosols (organic muck and peat soils). These natural organic compounds react with the chlorine treatment to form a wide variety of organo-chlorine compounds
many of which are known or suspected of being cancer-causing agents (carcinogens).
Why should we expose the citizens of Los Osos to this problem? The only answer is greed. It makes no difference whether other communities continue to do the wrong thing, it is not appropriate to allow Los Osos to expose our residents intentionally to this very serious potential health threat. State water flows through the San Joaquin Delta and has this problem.
These are the major reason we must ensure all aspects of the sewer result in our keeping all of our water locally. We must be able to reduce our water loss to Morro Bay to a minimum of about one inch of water per year. The rest of the water must be effectively reused and must NOT be wasted by allowing it to enter the bay by seepage from surrounding soils from the upper aquifer.

Q. When you say we should avoid State Revolving Funds (SRF) monies to keep costs low, are you focusing only on the theoretical possibility and ignoring the likely outcome?

A. I am deeply troubled by the assumption only SRF funds with major government strings will be the only way to go in Los Osos. I firmly believe various firms will be able to provide private lending because they realize the ecologically friendly small and medium size sewer companies are fighting for their existence. If any community can obtain private funding for their sewer process, I can affirm it will certainly be Los Osos. Worldwide attention is focused upon Los Osos in the wastewater industry. These smaller companies understand the problems we face and will be willing to assist us. Most engineers focused upon gigantic sewers do not realize other opportunities do exist for funding.

Q. Why should we look at private funding over SRF monies? Some claim the high interest rates of private funding make this option more expensive in the long run. Is this just bias?

A. I believe we must try as much as possible to prevent any use of the State Revolving Fund monies. I believe we can have access to private funding. It will cost not much more than the state funding.
Most importantly, we will be able to ensure we can have a sewer with the least amount of cost overrides if we reject using the SRF. With the SRF and an early 218 vote, we will very likely end up buying a pig in a poke. By this I mean the gigantic multinational sewer installation companies will continually increase the costs. The total cost will be a continuously changing number, mainly because they have ignored the problems encountered with water recharge and biosolids processing.
Many problems will develop with the installation and operation of the massively engineered Los Osos sewer. This will result in very expensive cost overrides to fix the last fix that failed to solve the original problem which should have been identified by a properly designed sewer.

Q. What are the dangers of building a sewer and ignoring the problems encountered with water recharge and biosolids processing?

A. The conventional sewer processes this high Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD meaning high organic matter content) sewage so fast it results in a much greater mass of biosolids than will be generated with the STEP system even when the septic tank pumping is added to the total process. In general, the faster sewage is processed at any central processing plant, the more total tons of biosolids that will be produced.
It is absolutely critical to establish an on-site treatment process for biosolids treatment. We must have an effective means for aerobic (using air) composting and total biosolids biomass reduction on site. It will be essential to provide some clear process of utilization and beneficial processing of the biosolids. The metals content should be quite low and fortunately additional toxic chemicals are usually quite low in Los Osos.
Class A biosolids must be generated. Then these biosolids must be further composted aerobically ideally for over 6 months to a year on site. This might most effectively be achieved by mixing the biosolids with green waste. This will greatly enhance degradation by providing more nutrients, more water holding ability, more aeration and more rapid degradation. The resulting composted material could be used for erosion control and other purposes, including crops harvested with a protective leaf cover (corn, wheat, etc.) but cannot be used for root crop production.
Biosolids composting must emphasize vertical processing to enhance aeration and improved microbial degradation rather than the traditional horizontal processing only. Soil inoculation should be considered to ensure these systems work optimally. Inclusion of rice hulls and straw will most likely greatly enhance the rate and quality of composting by promoting water holding and aeration.

Q. Why is the County still looking at Broderson as a recharge site, even as a secondary recharge site? Where is the “fatal flaw” in this? Since County engineering approved the excessive water application rates, how can we trust the County to look after our best interests in other areas requiring objective professional expertise?

A. The allowed loading rates based upon the Tri-W site with the Broderson recharge location is over 1000 times more than can possibly be absorbed in this location. The County seems to have the head-in-the-sand mentality. They believe because the Coastal Commission and the RWQCB approved this site previously, it must be OK to use it. This is probably the greatest fatal flaw in the entire sewer design.
I have continually warned (as did Wade Brim before me) the sands in Los Osos will transmit water horizontally faster than they will vertically. This means the sands will not allow for effective water infiltration into these soils and adequate microbial and chemical treatment of the wastewater through the soil pores. The model assumes vertical flow. The County’s own data collected as part of the initial testing of the Broderson site clearly reveals more rapid horizontal rather than vertical movement.
They County believes if it drills a core downward, it can overcome many of these clay lamellae. However, what they do not seem to realize is these lamellae occur every inch or two down to the deep clay layer several hundred feet deep. This deep hole would only increase the amount of water flowing horizontally. This will mean more of this water will surface downhill somewhere between the Methodist church and the bay.
Probably only later, after the County forces the massive sewer onto the community will they realize the truth of this very restrictive soil property. They must reexamine the engineering, which was a fatal flaw to have approved this high application rate.
The failure of the County, the RWQCB and the Coastal Commission to look out for the welfare of the citizens of Los Osos is the very reason I feel compelled to speak out regarding these problems. We cannot trust these people for the facts. They are locked into an octopus process of squeezing Los Osos for all it is worth (both economically and water wise).

Q. Why does the RWQCB insist on “the most expensive sewer possible”?

A. The RWQCB will be making more money in the form of monitoring the Los Osos wastewater situation in the future. The larger the plant, the more money will be coming to the RWQQCB.  Consequently, they have a vested interest in forcing Los Osos to have the most expensive sewer possible. This helps to explain their zeal for approving anything in Los Osos regardless of whether it works or protects the overall water quality. Their eagerness to protect the water “quality” will result in the total loss of all water useful for drinking. Thus, they will eventually work themselves out of a job in Los Osos, but by then the community will be destroyed.

Q. How important is it to establish an on-site treatment process for treating biosolids? What constructive role can on-site play in development of a sewer?

A. In the past few years Kern County has persuaded other counties to reject allowing the importation of any biosolids from Los Angeles to be spread on land in Kern County. Their action has motivated most other counties to write legislation preventing any cross-county transfer of biosolids. Although Santa Barbara County has not yet acted, in all probability it will. The NIMBY approach is very strong and no one wants more biosolids to be applied in their backyard. Thus, we will not be able to dispose of our biosolids. However, the TriW site is predicated upon the availability of trucking our biosolids to the Santa Maria treatment plant.
The cost of trucking and especially the cost of dumping our waste in Santa Maria will rise rapidly to several hundred to a thousand dollars a ton. This means we must develop an alternate solution. The only apparent solution is on-site treatment of these biosolids. They must be processed by aerobic decomposition ideally with yard waste, which will accelerate the decomposition process. After appropriate composting on site, the compost might be useful for agriculture.
The best place for applying biosolids would be on dry land grazing areas or dryland barley in the northern part of the County. Other uses must be found. We as a society cannot continue to throw away all of our resources. We must realize human waste is a resource that is currently under utilized.
Because we must recycle our wastewater, we must also recycle our biosolids. Unfortunately, people believe they can cover their eyes and throw this into a landfill. However, our landfills are rapidly filling, and biosolids contain plant nutrients useful for agriculture. We must adopt a much more progressive and forward thinking process for treating all of our waste products.

Q. If a conventional sewage treatment process does not remove all presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products, how safe is it to release these products into treated wastewater? Wouldn’t natural soil filtration provide just as fine a screen for these products?

A. A serious consideration is the presence of pharmaceutical and personal care products. These are not being processed during the conventional sewage treatment process. Swiss researchers first realized this threat about five years ago.
Releasing these products in the treated water will have very adverse conditions. For example, birth control medications will pass through the water. If we use this recycled water it will eventually place all residence on birth control when they drink this recycled water. It is not certain whether soil filtration of these products will result in the elimination of these products.  Because the recycled water will become our main water supply we have every obligation to all of our citizens to do the right thing and to prevent contamination and exposure of our citizens to these potential threats to our health.
In addition to birth control products, other serious considerations are the possible body elimination of major anti-cancer medications. Fragrances and antibiotics will present major problems. Elevated levels of female hormones in our water may result in the development of full mammary glands in young men. This has been seen with the use of lavender soaps recently.  These are areas with incomplete research at this time.

Q. How seriously should we the people take the dangers of transferring antibiotic-resistant genes to humans through the sewer? How is Tri-W “fatally flawed” from the human health perspective?

A. I am a member of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). The ASM is very highly concerned about the increasing spread of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment. Sewage treatment plants are one of the worse areas for the spread of antibiotic resistance genes. This occurs for two reasons. First, we eliminate most of the antibiotics we take as urine or feces. Second, the wide variety of microbes in the sewage treatment process encourages the rapid exchange of a host of genes. Some of these genes transferred are antibiotic resistance genes.
What is the source of these antibiotic resistance genes? Greed! Inadequate purification of the antibiotic occurs before you receive a shot from the doctor. For a microorganism to produce an antibiotic, the microbe must possess an antibiotic resistance gene allowing it to live and produce the antibiotic (otherwise it would kill itself). The pharmaceutical industry uses only partial purification by separating the microbial cells from the liquid containing the antibiotic. Unfortunately, the antibiotic resistance genes are included with the antibiotic. Thus, when you receive an antibiotic injection, you receive both the antibiotic and the antibiotic resistance gene.
If we begin drinking treated wastewater, even after passage through soil, this will probably result in converting the citizens of Los Osos into a huge guinea pig experiment where they will be exposed to the potential transfer of the antibiotic resistance genes being transferred to people. Gene fragments may exist in the water. If this occurs, the health of all individuals in the community will be seriously threatened because physicians will have no alternative during the critical process of administering life-saving medications when the current antibiotics are no longer effective due to the people possessing these antibiotic resistance genes.
To make matters worse, when a physician administers an antibiotic from the group of the same antibiotic resistance genes it has two results. First, it kills the disease-causing organisms along with nearly all normal healthy organisms within your body (all those without the antibiotic resistance gene). Second, it gives free reign over your body of all pathogens which have acquired the antibiotic resistance gene. This pathogen will now become life-threatening. Unless the physician can use an antibiotic from another family, you may die.
These considerations suggest we must use disinfected tertiary treated wastewater plus a much more intense treatment with Ultra Violet light and possibly hydrogen peroxide or ozone.  Chlorine should be avoided because the addition of chlorine gas results in uncontrolled organic chemical reactions creating organic chlorine compounds that increasingly are seen as suspected cancer-causing agents. Even the presence of organic peroxides are not certain to be really safe.  However, this may be safer than allowing a pathogen to escape through the sewage treatment system. As I have indicated, the organic compounds that escape processing may be a serious threat to our health. The more recycled wastewater we consume, the greater is this threat into the future.

Q. What are the major problems with conventional gravity collection?

A. The major problem is the deep trenching and the installation of long, straight pipes that do not bend to fit the changes in elevation and do not work around corners very well. The deep trenching and large-diameter pipe installation is the most expensive part of the entire sewer.
Conventional gravity collection will cause several major problems. First, the large-diameter pipes will leak sewage downward into the soil below each leak. This will result in many uncontrolled leaks. This will provide non-treated nitrate, phosphate, and pathogens to the soil and enhance contamination within the collection zone. This spreads the current problem all over because no septic tank exists under each of these leaks to provide clean up of this leakage spilled into the soil.
Second, these large-diameter pipes will leak inward, meaning in zones closest to the sea level, sea water will move into these pipes. Any sea w
ater leakage into these large diameter pipes will have two effects. The sea salts will strongly inhibit the microbial decomposition in the treatment plant. More importantly, these sea salts will prevent this water from being used as a water source for humans. This is absolutely to be prevented under all circumstances. This is a fatal flaw for the currently proposed gravity collection system.
Another fatal flow is the major deep-soil disturbance due to installation of the large-diameter pipes. This process will cause deep disturbance at several major locations, going from high on the hillside on the south downward towards the bay to the north.
The problem is this disturbance will greatly increase the problems of soil erosion when water concentrates moving down the streets oriented north to south. If any of these streets leaks water, it will result in major out wash of the soil along the route of the sewer lines.
In addition, in the event of an earthquake, this will greatly increase the probability of structural damage in homes because the stability of soil can never be returned to the original stability after such a deep soil disturbance. This situation will decrease over time after the sewer is installed, but it will never go away with the number and degree of deep digging actions in this vicinity.
Use of the STEP, vacuum and low-pressure collection systems allows much faster response to leakage problems and other difficulties because it has much better monitoring. The greatly improved methods of installing small-diameter pipe with minimal soil disturbance avoid much of the problems identified previously Modern engineering technology allows for directed drilling horizontally below ground, allowing for the installation of small-diameter pipes without this severe deep trenching and soil disturbance.

Q. Does the RWQCB’s approval of the Tri-W site project suggest to you it is more concerned about building the most expensive sewer system than addressing sea water intrusion… energy usage… time and money savings with STEP?

A. Ironically, the RWQCB approved of the Tri-W site gravity collection process because it does not care about the problem of sea water quality deterioration of the collected wastewater. Its excessive zeal is only to ensure the most expensive sewer being installed in Los Osos. So much for the RWQCB’s true concerns over water quality for Los Osos. The RWQCB seems to have blinders on when it comes to seeing the true big picture of concerns facing Los Osos. The RWQCB prefers to see only a few dissidents who are trying to prevent the installation of any sewer.
The high BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand due the high organic content of toilet effluent) loading with the conventional sewer collection system means raw black water containing many solids will be collected from each home, ground up and transferred to the proposed gravity collection pipes. An excessive cost for grinding pumps and water flow pumps all using a high rate of electricity is a fatal flaw.
When compared to using the septic tank as a distinct part of the total initial biological treatment process, the energy costs decrease dramatically. The BOD with STEP can be reduced nearly three-fold. This means the treatment plant has a much better chance to process the wastewater effectively.
A STEP collection system with a lower BOD treatment plant and effective ag water exchange can be installed and working within about 2.5 years, whereas a conventional gravity sewer with the high BOD treatment plant will require about 4 to 5 years to complete. If speed is urgent, then we should consider these trade-offs.

Q.  What is the cost of not having a septic tank compared to the overall costs of the sewer?

A. I realize some people want to keep the government completely out of their lives. However, this is wishful thinking in our complex modern society. Residents will have to tolerate some degree of officials having access to part of your property where the new septic tanks will be installed if we use a collection system similar to the one proposed by the Ripley Pacific Engineering plan.
The new plan calls for relocation of most of the existing septic tanks to newly installed septic tanks very near the streets in front of most homes. The current septic tank locations will mostly be abandoned. These new septic tanks would function as a primary treatment in the same way the current septic tanks function. The primary-treated wastewater would be collected by small-diameter pipes with minimal soil disturbance. The wastewater would be monitored continuously once it left your toilet. Monitors would notify the treatment plant officials of any pressure loss, leakage or back up in the system. Responses could be as fast as five minutes and should be no more than a half hour.
Concerns exist about sewer officials having access to private property to inspect and pump these new septic tanks. All homeowners need to understand what the trade-off is in costs. The costs for not having a septic tank and not having access to inspect these tanks result in more than double the overall cost of the sewer. Some very wealthy people will not feel this is justified, but most people will realize this is a much better trade-off if the system costs one half as much and it has a much less invasive soil treatment below ground.
The community has to accommodate in various ways, and this is one of the realizations for having the new sewer (as proposed by the Ripley Pacific Engineering plan) imposed upon the community. Maybe the cost would have to include buying a region near the street where new septic tanks would be installed. This would allow public control especially if community septic tanks were used instead of individual septic tanks.

Q. If speed of installation is so urgent a factor to the RWQCB and County, and if STEP can be installed faster, why shouldn’t this be more of a consideration?

A. The RWQCB stalled the sewer process proposed by the original first wastewater alternatives TAC. Ironically, they want to say it was the fault of Los Osos for the delay, when in fact the RWQCB rejected a sewer with some of the same components proposed by the Ripley Pacific Engineering plan.
It is a fact the STEP or other non-gravitational sewage-water collection system can be installed quickly. This is why this should be considered seriously as an effective solution. The RWQCB and County will have infinite patience of installation for a gigantic sewer for a community of 2 million people. The conventional Tri-W sewer treatment plant would require about 5 to 6 years to become fully operational, whereas the STEP system could be installed in about 2 1/2 years.

Q. With the Tri-W and Broderson sites as prime examples of previously approved systems with now-obvious engineering flaws, would we have encountered millions of dollars of cost increases over time to manage these flaws if the Tri-W project had been built?

A. If the Tri-W site had been developed, we would have seen tremendous costs, which would have required many unanticipated problems. These would include major health problems, earthquake damage, severe soil erosion, major contamination from the leaking large-diameter straight sewer pipes at each slight change in angle of these pipe connections. Each of these would have required millions of dollars more to fix the fix caused by the previous attempted fix. In addition, the water would become contaminated by sea water intrusion near the bay. This would have permanently destroyed the use of all of our water and effectively killed the community of Los Osos.
The use of the Broderson recharge site would have resulted in surface flooding within a few years. If it actually allowed deeper percolation for a short time, the water would have lubricated the potent
ial for mass movement of the water-saturated sand downhill during an earthquake. In addition, it would have resulted in water surfacing downhill about half way down the street from the Methodist church and the bay. All of these would have required millions of more dollars to attempt to fix the problems created by the ill-conceived original sewer fix.
All of these are examples of the creeping costs we would have encountered with the fatally flawed Tri-W treatment site and Broderson wastewater recharge location. We must know the full extent of all parts of the sewer and know its full final cost before we approve the vote for this new sewer. We cannot allow these creeping costs to destroy Los Osos.

Q. How have ethics been violated in this process?

A. Ethics violations are notoriously difficult to identify. This is because any under-the-table bribes to members of the RWQCB staff have been carefully disguised. This could include the staff members accepting services from major multinational sewage treatment companies. These giant companies may have been providing legal counsel to ensure a massive sewer would be installed here. These large companies want to ensure they can survive.
The survival of these major multinational sewer treatment companies has become less certain because the new process for wastewater treatment calls for a more environmentally friendly process using a more modular approach with smaller, replaceable parts and more redundancy rather than a giant plant with one-style-fits-all communities. This new engineering concept has developed mainly since the turn of the millennium.
The RWQCB has continually attempted to contact the empty lot owners to agitate them to force issues that would allow them to build if they forced a full-blown sewer. However, these people will not be able to build because we have already exceeded the effective safe water yield for this basin. The RWQCB uses these people as unethical pawns holding out the potential promise of future construction of homes on these empty lots, whereas with the safe water yield of the basin being exceeded, they will not be able to build to the anticipated housing limit suggested by County Planning.
Apparently, the sewer has become a personal vendetta against Los Osos by some of the staff members of the RWQCB. This lack of objectivity has resulted in only cursory review of the proposals for the sewer. This is one reason so many fatal flaws have been approved in the past and may continue with the new proposal. They will be more than happy if Los Osos citizens will have to pay millions upon millions of dollars more for errors in the sewer. In addition, the fact the RWQCB receives more money when the sewer is larger, means they have a conflict of interest regarding the size of the sewer.

Q. Do you believe the “fatal flaws” in the Tri-W site project justified stopping it?  Do you see these same “fatal flaws” stopping the project again this time around, even if approved by the County and RWQCB?

A. The treatment site location must consider what I believe are a fatal flaw from the human health perspective. Because of the persistent fog, any viruses entrapped in the air due to movement of the sewage and wastewater will result in a major down wind direction effect of contaminating residents close to the treatment facility. This effect is well known in the wastewater community where sewage treatment personnel are often fairly sick for the first several years until they become immune through previous exposure to these various viruses and microbes.
However, these health problems are much more serious for susceptible individuals (infants, elderly and those having a compromised immune system). Ideally, the treatment facility should be completely enclosed and all air leaving the facility should be treated with UV radiation to reduce the possibility of this happening in Los Osos.
Locating the treatment facility to the east of Los Osos (as proposed by the Ripley Pacific Engineering plan) would greatly reduce this health threat.
Any way we can prevent major health problems for our citizens is an ethical mandate for the community. Allowing the previous sewer or even the new sewer process (to be adopted by the TAC and approved by the County Board of Supervisors) must ensure the current and future health of all of our citizens. This is a primary concern. In fact, this is the hidden concern of water quality for which the RWQCB is acting to force the gigantic sewer on Los Osos.

Q. Why is the County wasting time and millions of dollars of our tax money on a 218 vote with no specific project and no cap? Are they purposefully shooting themselves in the foot to make their failure look like an accident, or are they just too stupid for words when it comes to understanding Los Osos?

A. The 218 vote itself is an interesting tool. It was designed by the legislature to force communities to have a sewer. It was intended to hoodwink most of the people and have them approve a pig in a poke (a proposed sewer with many problems in the design) long before the true design and problems were revealed.
We should demand an actual cap on the total cost of the proposed sewer. This can only be determined after we know what all of the components of the sewer will be. In addition, we must assess all of the potential fatal flaws and work out solutions without fatal flaws, allowing the community to install an effectively functioning economical system. Once all of these are accomplished, then it will be appropriate to have a 218 vote with a cap on the total cost and well informed citizens understanding how each of the parts functions to provide the treatment and recycling of wastewater.
Slick multicolored brochures may be nice, but if the system is highly flawed all you have is a slick multicolored brochure supporting a fatally flawed sewer proposal. We should correct the problems first. Then, and only then, should we worry about the advertising to sell the project. In fact, this community is highly educated. They do not want to be insulted by glitz from brochures. They want to know all of the facts about the system, all of its components and how all of the previous problems have been changed to meet all of the needs of the citizens of Los Osos.

Q. How has the intervention of Blakeslee impacted the Los Osos sewer project, i.e. circumvented the will of the people of Los Osos?

A. Another paternalistic action was the process Blakeslee used to become the white knight. How often has the state government imposed its will upon the properly elected citizens of Los Angeles or San Francisco in a similar manner?  Those who would lose from a significant very expensive conventional sewer installation wanted to ensure a major sewer project would continue in Los Osos. This state intervention had nothing to do with local politics or the capabilities of the CSD members to provide direction to the community process. It is all about ensuring gigantic multinational sewer corporations can win in Los Osos. If they can win, then they can impose their own very expensive wills in every other small community in the nation. Los Osos is recognized worldwide as a test case of gigantic multinational sewer corporations versus reasonable community-wide small to medium-size modular sewer projects to use the most modern technology at ecologically-applicable means and economical costs.
Normal financing companies would reject bonds for Los Osos due to the recent CSD default. However, I believe funds will be available from private sources to assure a sewer can be built meeting the expectations of sensible, environmentally sound, properly functioning and economically affordable. One reason is these smaller sewer firms are also fighting for their existence. The ones who come out on top in Los Osos are likely to be the ones w
ho will be able to control the new process of sewer construction for small communities throughout the U.S.

Q. How did we come from the first bond issue of “taxation without representation” to today’s “eminent domain by septic tank”? When did our government change from representing us to attacking us? What is the RWQCB so bent on punishment rather than improving water quality? How much of this is “the politics of pollution”?

A. It is questionable whether our government ever represented us. The basic problem of septic tanks in Los Osos was almost entirely due to the County itself. The County knew the lots were too small for effective septic tank processing. Regardless, to prevent saying no to any developer, the County continued to approve of many new lots to be used for new housing developments without insisting these lots be combined into larger units which would effectively meet the code.  Larger lots do exist in Los Osos and are mainly outside of the prohibition zone.
Even today the County refuses to bite the bullet and tell developers no new houses can be built in Los Osos. The reason is we have already over used our total water yield for this water basin. This means we will continue to mine the ground water and create sea water intrusion thereby destroying our own water source completely. This will kill the Los Osos community.
The major process is one that began with the RWQCB making an error by declaring an emergency situation existed in Los Osos. The RWQCB declared a nitrate problem existed in 1983. This was done to ensure Los Osos could qualify for state and federal funding of a sewer. This was a good intention, but it was premature. Since this time, the RWQCB has desperately tried to find any reason for saying this nitrate problem exists. More nitrate data has indicated the nitrate level of the ground water has increased, albeit many of the access wells used have been installed improperly and had failed to be sealed from surface contamination.
The RWQCB has to cover their behind because of their hasty declaration in 1983. The demonstration of effective denitrification by the septic systems in Los Osos (as reported in the “Nitrate Study of Los Osos”) was a sore thumb in their eye. Consequently, this became a political problem of trying to seek revenge against the intelligence of the citizens who mobilized to poke holes in the various forms of desperation that the RWQCB has invoked.
These include saying nitrate in the water or Morro Bay is due to improperly functioning septic tanks, but in reality this nitrate was from animals (deer, etc.) coming down to the Sweet Springs and to water pools near the bay at night. A septic tank functions when the water moves downward. If the water moves upward, the septic tank soil over the leach field also removes contaminants.
The RWQCB has attempted to prove DNA in Morro Bay comes from Los Osos septic tanks.  However, they have never been able to do this. If this were clearly demonstrated the County Health Department would have become involved and shut down the septic tank use. This has not happened in Los Osos.
The final insult was the recent visit by the Congressman from Indiana and Lois Capps touring the bay mud. What does the presence of bay mud have to do with Los Osos sewers? Do sand dunes contribute to this fine clay mud? Note the desperation of the RWQCB to paint a tar brush on Los Osos. They tried somehow to suggest the mud caused by Los Osos sewers.

Q. With more growth, more demands on our decreasing water supply, more competition for water and water sources, how can we best avoid state water in this crush? How is state water dangerous and flawed?

A. First of all, the question assumes more growth. We in California must realize a limit exists to growth. The limit of our growth is the total water yield of the basin. Once this limit has been exceeded, growth must cease. Everyone is afraid to bell the cat of the developers. Everyone seems to bow down to the great god of development and believe this is the only way for any community to prosper. However, one must ask, what happens when a community can no longer grow in population? The community can succeed by changing the focus of what it does. This will be easily accomplished because of the high level of educational accomplishments of the citizens.
The County and the RWQCB have ignored the nature of the people in Los Osos. For many years they assumed the community was full of dissidents only interested in trying to prevent having a sewer. Los Osos contains the most highly educated people per 1000 individuals between Monterey and Ventura. The reality is they do not want to pay for a non-functioning sewer rat hole with the obvious escalating costs associated with problems poorly examined (as was the fatal flaw with the recharge at the Broderson site for example).

Q. Why can’t we take better advantage of the rapid advances and new technologies in water processing? Doesn’t the County owe Los Osos the best technologies available, rather than only dated  technologies approvable by the RWQCB?

A. Many amazing technologies have recently been developed with much superior and effective water processing in the past few years. Within the past decade a major mindset change has occurred in the wastewater industry. This new mind set essentially argues previous massive sewer installations should be avoided because of the serious problems (long term they create) and the realization smaller is more efficient, effective with lower long-term maintenance and providing better water quality at a much lower treatment cost.
It has been highly depressing to read (in the new TAC report) how the County intends to force the conventional gravity sewer onto the community of Los Osos with bait-and-switch tactics and a blank-check mentality. All parts of the sewer as currently conceived will contain fatal flaws that should have been eliminated, but they continue to reappear time and again in report after report without correction.
Somewhere an engineering firm will have to bite the bullet and say these are fatal flaws and they cannot install this sewer. I vividly recall County Engineer George Gibson many times reminded the first wastewater alternatives TAC, the many problems in Los Osos may very likely prevent the proper functioning of any installed sewer in this community.
The various geologic and hydrologic models clearly indicate the nitrates under Los Osos will not clear up even with an installed sewer for at least 40 years.

In all probability, the nitrates will take much longer to disappear.
If the community is classified as a toxic waste dump, then the RWQCB will be required to clean it up because they took responsibility for it when they issued the letters of condemnation. Obviously, by evicting all homeowners and rendering their property worthless, the property cannot be sold to pay for cleaning up the nitrate problem. Where will the funds come from to be able to declare Los Osos a non-toxic waste site? All of these constitute unprecedented actions. They clearly indicate acts of desperation by the RWQCB and have not been processed to their logical conclusions.
Be aware of the previous bait-and-switch process. They allow the TAC to develop many useful ideas. Then at the very last minute, all previous work is negated by claiming many “fatal flaws” resulting in all previous work having no value. Consequently, only the new ideas with no opportunity to evaluate their impacts publicly are forced upon the community. This has occurred several times in the past in Los Osos.
The bait-and-switch tactics consisted of the first wastewater TAC exploring the various wastewater alternatives (over 20 were examined). This TAC had reached a consensus to move ahead with the sewer. After we made our pre
sentation to the County Board of Supervisors, the engineer presumably working with us (but who had refused to meet with us or share any information) made the “voodoo economics” presentation charging the cost of the conventional sewer against all of the other proposals we knew were much less in cost. This was the first example.
The bait-and-switch tactics continued with the vote to approve the creation of the CSD. The citizens were under the impression the Solutions Group’s proposal for a ponding system would be used. All of a sudden from nowhere, the full-blown sewer at the Tri-W site with the Broderson recharge was adopted. Many citizens were waiting to learn when they would be voting on the approval of this indebtedness. The legal counsel explained they could circumvent the law in this case. Clearly, this was a form of taxation without representation of the full electorate on a bond issue as occurs in nearly every California State election on bond issues.  These bonds are voted on with a clearly indicated cost and the implications of the resulting passage or failure of the vote.
What is needed is to provide a clearly reasoned comparison step wide of why each option was chosen and why each other alternative was rejected. The people of Los Osos do not want to spend more money on colored brochures, they want more solid clearly argued thinking with more effective and assured results for these steps in the sewer process. They deserve to have a clear understanding of the bottom-line cost and have an “Economic Impact Analysis” indicating the true impact on both those within and those outside of the prohibition zone.
Many times the County Engineering or the RWQCB has claimed the new technologies have not been “tested.” They are speaking from a position of ignorance. Modern sewer technologies have been tested by having been installed and are functioning in many parts of the U.S. and in various countries of the world. When these people say they have not been tested, they are revealing their ignorance of modern sewer technologies. Also, they are strongly biasing the process by saying, “We do not want to use any modern technology. Why should we when our minds are already made up and we know the best thing for Los Osos is the conventional gigantic sewer for a city of 2 million people?”
This is the mind set we must guard against because it is another example of how the County Engineering and the RWQCB has a phobia first of new technology and second of how they want to force the gigantic conventional sewer upon the citizens of Los Osos when modern sewer technology with modular design capabilities will serve our needs adequately and newer designs which have been proven through successful implementation and operation in many other locations.
They use the egotistical excuse it has not been done in this specific region of the RWQCB.  This is very self serving. One should ask why they are so reactive and have such a phobia against allowing these proven technologies in this region of the RWQCB. Are they afraid the conventional sewer will be seen as not performing as adequately as will the newly developed sewer technologies? Are they in the pocket of the gigantic sewer companies and cannot allow any new proven technologies to be used here because they have already compromised their ethics by accepting bribes or services under the table? We may never know, but it does not prevent reasonable people of asking why modern technology is rejected with such lame excuses when these technologies are exactly what will save Los Osos from the fatal flaws of the conventional sewer system.
It appears to be highly unethical for professionals to dismiss out of hand any new technologies. What ethical responsibility does the County Engineering and the RWQCB have to provide an open and unbiased approach to any and all new technologies?