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Sewer wars rage on 

click to enlarge ABOVE IT ALL :  The long-running effort to secure a sewer for Los Osos is headed for a bid, although some aren’t happy with the chosen design. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • ABOVE IT ALL : The long-running effort to secure a sewer for Los Osos is headed for a bid, although some aren’t happy with the chosen design.

If the Los Osos sewer project seemed like a fight before, the latest meeting between the county and residents was an all out soccer riot. People packed nearly every seat of the Board of Supervisors chambers—some were for the county’s project; many were passionately opposed. But an actual project is finally going to bid after years of delays, and many left the room angry.

SLO County supervisors voted 4-1 on April 7 to begin the contract bidding process for a new Los Osos sewer. Supervisor Frank Mecham was the dissenting vote, he said, because a Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) system won’t be considered.

Dozens of Los Osos residents vied for county officials to consider the STEP alternative, which many promote as cleaner and cheaper than the county’s preferred gravity system. STEP systems use pressurized septic tanks to reduce the size of the transportation pipes and treatment facility. Gravity systems are conventional.

During the most recent meeting, and in the months leading to the supervisors’ decision, many residents have accused officials of pre-selecting a design and subverting the process to meet their own ends. Mecham, for the most part, agreed that the county’s process was less than perfect.

“I just don’t feel that from everything that I’ve read and from everything that we’ve heard that we gave them every option as a community,” Mecham said.

More than 60 people lobbied county supervisors, with the majority of speakers making one last push for STEP consideration before the project goes out for bid.

Ultimately, criticisms fell into three categories: the county’s project is expensive and dated; county officials are biased; and county officials have relied on faulty data from, for example, a survey that showed a majority of residents in favor of a gravity system.

“Why the organized attempt to eliminate STEP from this process?” asked Jeff Pienak, chair of the Surfrider San Luis Obispo chapter. “I just ... I don’t understand it.”

In fact, every supervisor seemed unsatisfied with the process. Several questioned the objectivity of questions in the community survey. Even Supervisor Bruce Gibson, one of the chief proponents of a gravity system, said he wished STEP had been carried further through the process. Ultimately though, he said the county analysis proved the technology wouldn’t work in Los Osos.

“This is not personal,” Gibson said while explaining his decision. “This is not politics for me.”

Public Works officials said STEP is a viable system in some areas, but in a densely populated area like Los Osos where some lots are only 25 feet wide, the negatives would outweigh the positives. Officials admitted the initial cost could be about 20 percent cheaper than gravity, but argued that delaying the process to pursue STEP could cost the county a shot at stimulus dollars, and eminent domain may be necessary to install new septic tanks on private lots. What’s more, they say STEP systems could cost more to maintain.

STEP is off the table for now. Three contractors will get to submit bids to build a gravity system and county planning commissioners will begin the first official project review in two weeks.

Final approval will depend on the state Coastal Commission. But appeals and lawsuits are almost a certainty.

“You’re worried about time …?” resident Richard Margetson said. “You’re going to have time because the coastal development permit is going to be appealed.”


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