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Paso Robles settles wastewater fines 

For about a decade, Paso Robles hasn’t treated its sewage sufficiently to comply with state standards.

The City Council decided Dec. 3 to pay a $321,000 settlement package that includes violations from Sept 1, 2009, to Sept 30, 2013. The fines include a bundle of 107 violations during that time period. The money will go to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local body responsible for monitoring and enforcing water quality standards set forth by the state.

The decision to settle this round of fines comes as the city is undergoing a $49.6 million upgrade of its old and rickety wastewater treatment plant. Construction is expected to wrap up in September 2014, and will significantly help the effluent meet standards.

“The existing wastewater treatment plant is antiquated and overloaded,” Public Works Director Doug Monn told the council. “The city will regularly violate until Nacimiento water and the new treatment plant goes online.”

Monn explained that a chunk of the violations stem from high salt content, caused by widespread use of water softeners to treat Paso Robles’ naturally hard well water. The need for the salt-intensive softening will be significantly reduced when the Nacimiento Water Treatment Plant goes online—a separate project that will allow the city to use its allotment of Nacimiento water.

A slew of other contaminants—generally safe for humans but not-so-beneficial for the riparian habitat of the Salinas River, in which the waste is discharged—is listed in the staff report: “Pollutants that exceeded effluent limits include sodium, chloride, total dissolved solids, pH, bisphthalate, selenium, copper, cyanide, chlorine, biochemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids, and coliform bacteria.”

While the council accepted responsibility, Councilman Fred Strong made a point of highlighting stringent water quality standards set by the state, and the way that cities are required to pay these penalties. Water boards had long issued discretionary fines, which left wiggle room in negotiations, sometimes leading to lax enforcement on cities in violation. That changed when the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the levying of mandatory minimum fines. Now, each violation comes with a minimum $3,000 fine. The $321,000 settlement includes the minimum $3,000 for every one of the 107 violations, fines which may have increased if left unpaid. In reaching the settlement, the city and the water board arranged for roughly half of the fines to go to local environmental projects that would benefit Paso Robles.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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