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I'm voting no 

A dispatch from the Prohibition Zone

I live in Los Osos, in the dark and dangerous Prohibition Zone, land of cease-and-desist orders, maligned septic tanks, and community division a zone that cuts through our lives, determining who will pay and who will not for a wastewater solution, who can and who cannot.

Recently, I received my Proposition 218 ballot asking me to vote YES or NO to a $25,000 assessment and tax lien on my home, allowing the county to design/build an unidentified wastewater project at an undefined cost at an unknown location. It's a mystery project with no cap on cost overruns. These will be added on as fees and charges, along with the operation and maintenance costs on a future utility bill. "On-lot" lateral and tank replacement expense could go as high as $9,000, an out-of-pocket cost. They're asking us to commit to $300-a-month minimum. A YES vote won't mean much, since the County Board of Supervisors will decide for us, not us. Because of this, I will be voting NO.

Am I voting against a sewer? No, I'm voting against a gamble. I don't feel comfortable that we don't know what we're agreeing to. Even Shirley Bianchi, our former county supervisor, assured the community on June 19 last year that "People need to know what they're voting on. You can't ask them for an open-ended vote."

And at this point I just don't trust the county's commitment to choosing a decent alternative design, since they've already suggested that it will be expensive and conventional. They have a vested interest by receiving new, higher assessment taxes when those who can't pay are forced to sell homes that were once affordable. The county is not famous for embracing slow, sustainable growth.

On Sept. 16, 1983, Los Osos had approximately 3,500 homes and 11,000 residents, all on septic tanks. That day, the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) proclaimed that there appeared to be a nitrate problem in the upper aquifer of our water basin. Data from questionable test wells were the basis for the decision to declare a Prohibition Zone area and call for a 1988 building moratorium inside this "zone." The RWQCB threatened to issue cease and desist orders (CDOs) if the county didn't install a sewer for those homes. That same day in 1983, the RWQCB simultaneously signed Resolution 83-12 calling for a septic management program for Los Osos and several other smaller towns in the county.

A growth spurt of 1,140 home permits followed until the official moratorium date, a septic management program fell by the wayside, and people seeking to establish the connection between Los Osos septic tanks and nitrates produced little proven data.

Now, after Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee stepped in last year with AB2701, forcing the project away from our newly elected Community Services District (CSD) which had begun the process of designing a sewer with the $500,000 STEP alternative study from Ripley Pacific the county has taken control. The recall of the three prior CSD Board members (who convinced the State Water Board to release our SRF funds earlier than they should have, to start the rejected, middle-of-town project) was a strong cry from the community that we wanted a more affordable and appropriate wastewater design, outside of town.

The county proposed that they would use $2 million from the General Fund to produce a fine screening and pro/con analysis on the alternative sewer designs, educate and include the community on options, and then offer us a 218 vote on the best two projects. That sounded reasonable enough. Yet the entire fine screening and Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) evaluation has been a farce, designed to distract from innovative technology and instead make absurd comparisons of components that might work together, leaving out the best system analysis.

If the 218 move fails, the project goes back to the Los Osos CSD, opening the door for design/build/finance options the county can't choose and butting up against the RWQCB's lack of support for sustainable, proven technologies that the Los Osos CSD is considering.

Being solution-oriented, I would like to see a complete re-evaluation of the pollution and water-shortage problem in Los Osos. Twenty-four years is a long time without a cohesive effort to revisit and understand current issues. The problem is basin wide, with cropland pollution adding the highest known level of nitrates. Everyone in our basin uses a toilet and the drinking supply.

There should be no Prohibition Zone. Instead, everyone should share proportionally in the cost, including the county and state. The 24 years of property taxes paid have yielded little in return, not one square foot of park property, substandard roads, a neglected water system, and no Septic Management Program. It's our little Bangladesh of the coast.

After six years of this dark dance, my enduring vision is a STEP collection for all the low-lying, high-groundwater areas. The STEP (Septic Tank Effluent Pump) system utilizes the septic tank to break down and separate solids (with zero energy cost or chemicals), sending the daily effluent runoff into a shallow, directionally bored, pressurized small pipe collection system to be transferred across and out of town east to the future site. The "pipeline main" would provide a community trail out to the regional park at the wetlands space below the pond treatment area. Ideally we would add in a septage component to process our septic tank pumpings (every five to 10 years) rather than continue to send them to Santa Maria or beyond.

We could wisely maintain the majority of septic systems that have more than 10 feet to groundwater with a septic management program (as was mandated in 1983). This would assure that all homeowners remain well educated and that their systems operate optimally. The nearby "recreated" wetlands could be established to "polish" and treat a returnable drinking supply, as well as store seasonable water. Agriculture exchange of the treated effluent could be given to farmers and green spaces (golf courses, school fields, pastures, sod fields, cemeteries) to lower their draw on the aquifers and cut back on the nitrogen fertilizer use. Three large, slow wind generators, solar collection, and methane capture could easily fuel the entire operation and possibly feed into the grid to add to the PG&E supply. The wetlands area could provide a regional park area for recreation and be used to grow a harvestable forest or biofuel crop. Spreading the construction and operation and management costs using the multiple solutions and designing for long-term sustainability would lower the individual property cost and more effectively address a safe supply of clean water in Los Osos. The undeveloped properties have a better chance to build if we design smart, with our limited basin supply, and choose a sustainable system that would take half the time to install.

So, because the county isn't likely to choose this path, I will vote NO and hope that our current Los Osos CSD board will be ready to implement an alternative plan if the opportunity arises. It's the better gamble, I believe.

Linde Owen is a Los Osos resident. E-mail comments to the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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