In the 32 years that Gary Giannico has lived in his Los Osos home, the septic tank has never failed. But this week, he paid a company thousands of dollars to dig a trench below his thoughtfully landscaped front yard to install a pipe connection to the county’s sewer system and fill his septic tank with sand.
“It is kind of upsetting, but it’s life,” Giannico said.
He is one of the some 3,000 property owners in the coastal village mandated to hook up to the year-old wastewater treatment plant built decades after the state put a moratorium on wastewater discharge and determined the community was out of compliance with state water code. Homeowners have been told they must decommission or repurpose their septic tanks because nitrates have been contaminating the groundwater.
Most of the residents have complied, at an out-of-pocket expense between $2,500 and $15,000, depending on the complexity of the job. But after a mid-March deadline had passed, the county announced that 700 people, or 23 percent, had not yet connected to the sewer in violation of county and state code. After cleaning up the data and identifying 98 low-income residents that qualify to have their work completely paid for, Public Works staff determined they still don’t know the reason why 400 people have yet to connect.
It matters. Those out of compliance could be subject to hefty fines and penalties from the state and the county, though there is no indication that either jurisdiction will begin issuing fees soon.
“There is just nobody that is anxious to start threatening fines. But you have to do due diligence and let them know the end game could involve threats and penalties,” said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of the county Public Works Department. “We want to encourage people to hook up.”
The reasons people haven’t connected are fairly clear, according to Los Osos residents and plumbing companies that spoke with The Tribune.
▪ (1) It’s expensive.
Most homeowners paid between $3,000 to $5,000 to connect to the sewer on top of a new monthly fee of around $160 that residents shell out to pay toward the $185 million plant. Some installations can cost up to $15,000 for more complex jobs.
▪ (2) Plumbing companies have a waiting list.
There are only so many known, experienced and trusted companies. Miles Morrison, who owns Drain Busters Plumbing, said the lowest number of lateral sewer connections he has had on the books at one time is 20. People like Giannico and his neighbors, who missed the county-imposed deadline, have had to wait their turn and for clear, dry weather.
▪ (3) Homeowners may live out of town and aren’t aware of the mandate.
▪ (4) At least one person just doesn’t trust the sewer system.
▪ (5) Homeowners don’t want to disrupt landscaping and have gotten conflicting information from contractors. But really, it’s money.
“The number one factor is funds. They don’t have the money,” resident Julie Tacker said.
Many people who don’t meet the low-income threshold for county assistance still live paycheck-to-paycheck, she said. Nineteen percent of the community is above the age of 65, meaning a good portion of residents are seniors living on a fixed income.
To find out all the exact reasons, the county will soon send out letters reminding people of their obligations along with a survey.
“If it’s a financial concern, there are options,” Hutchinson said.
With further outreach, the county will work on case-by-case basis, he said, to “connect with folks to lay out those options.”