Los Osos group loses suit over tanks

A Superior Court judge has ruled against Los Osos residents who accused a Central Coast water board of acting illegally when it ordered them to stop polluting the community water supply with septic tank runoff.

Judge Charles Crandall wrote of the Los Osos residents who protested the so-called “cease and desist orders,” or CDOs, that “the evidence belies their legal claims, which the court finds exaggerated.”

As a practical matter, the decision denying a writ of mandate might not mean much, because officials have moved ahead on dealing with Los Osos sewage as this legal action inched forward.

Since the Los Osos residents — known variously as Citizens for Clean Water and the Prohibition Zone Legal Defense Fund — sought the writ of mandate against the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the county has taken over the sewer project.

Ground may be broken on a sewage treatment plant and collection system this year, and it could be in use by 2014.

In his ruling, Crandall noted that the Los Osos sewer saga began to bubble midway through the previous century, when the population of the coastal hamlet “increased dramatically” between 1950 and 1980.

One problem this growth created was what the judge called “groundwater degradation” of the community drinking water supply. More specifically, individual septic tanks were sending nitrates and coliform bacteria into the groundwater.

The Central Coast water quality board told homeowners to stop polluting, eventually issuing the CDOs to some residents it felt were violating its discharge instructions.

That triggered a long and convoluted series of protests and political actions, of which the current case is only one piece.

The residents leveled several charges against the water board. They said, among other things, that the water board had violated their due process rights during hearings about the issue and had not provided evidence of pollution from individual septic tanks.

Crandall rejected those arguments.

In his conclusion, he wrote that “the cease and desist orders issued by the regional board are supported by substantial evidence and the hearings were conducted in the manner required by law.”

“The court does not come away with the notion of a local government agency run amok,” he wrote, although he also wrote that he “appreciates the mix of emotion, surprise and helplessness” experienced by the residents when they received their orders from the water board.

He wrote that “the regional board went out of its way to provide due process of law.”

Shaunna Sullivan, the attorney for Citizens for Clean Water, declined to comment on the decision, saying through an aide that she does not comment on ongoing litigation. She did not say whether she intended to appeal.

Roger Briggs, executive director of the regional water board, said the judge’s decision shows that the board “really bent over backwards to accommodate” the Los Osos residents and “it validates the actions we took.”

“Our hope is that we don’t have to spend more time on it,” Briggs told The Tribune.