The Coastal Commission spent the afternoon of Jan. 14 considering the Los Osos Wastewater Project. After hearing from many appellants and our county project team, the commission decided that a subsequent hearing on specific “substantial issues” will be required.
Commissioners directed their staff to address about a half-dozen items and schedule the next hearing “as soon as possible.”
The commission’s action was both disappointing and encouraging. The issues of concern were specific and few in number, but this delay threatens to compromise Congressional efforts to secure important funding.
The commission narrowly (7-5) overrode their staff’s recommendation that there was no reason for further consideration. I am most grateful to the commission staff for their efforts, as recent layoffs and furloughs have increased their individual workloads dramatically. Their staff and our project team worked closely to analyze the numerous appeal contentions. This work confirmed that the county’s extraordinary public process had produced a project that meets the high standards of our Local Coastal Program, as well as the water quality and environmental requirements of all other regulatory agencies.
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I was disappointed that the commission majority was uncertain of that conclusion. Perhaps they felt that a project of this scope and significance must have some substantial issue unresolved, even as we provided considerable evidence to the contrary. In the end, they sought more details on a few specific topics: wetland determinations, mitigation for habitat impacts, implementation of water conservation and agricultural reuse and temporary construction staging details.
Significantly, the commission showed no interest in further deliberation on collection or treatment technology choices and did not direct their staff to analyze those topics for the future hearing. That decision is significant, and we conclude that the debates on STEP vs. gravity, conventional vs. pond treatment systems, treatment plant siting and disposal options have been settled.
In exercising its authority for this review, the Coastal Commission has also accepted a set of responsibilities. First, it is now the commission, rather than the county, that will issue the permit for this project. This will require its staff’s continued engagement as the project moves to construction and completion.
The commission is now also responsible for acting in a timely and consistent manner to resolve the specific issues identified. We have frequently noted the fast approaching application deadlines for the $80 million funding package from the USDA. Loss of that opportunity would be unconscionable. Our project team will certainly do its part to resolve issues and be ready for the subsequent hearing as early as February.
The commission understands that the county has volunteered to pursue this project. Under the provisions of AB 2701, we have been given authority, but are not yet obligated to continue, pending completion of our due diligence. Permits, funding and litigation will still need to be resolved to the satisfaction of the Board of Supervisors before we adopt a resolution to accept final responsibility for the project.
Focused action on this permit is crucial. If the commission diverts its attention to those issues already settled, it could cause insurmountable delay and continue the risk of dire consequences for this community and its environment. If the commission works with us in a timely fashion and acts on the specified issues, this project will be on the threshold of a successful completion.
Overall, the Coastal Commission’s action is simply another necessary step in the marathon process of bringing a sewer to Los Osos. We’re encouraged by the strong support of numerous agencies, organizations and the vast majority of Los Osos residents. We’re focused and determined to finish this effort, and are hopeful that the Coastal Commission will act soon to help us meet our responsibility.
Bruce Gibson represents Los Osos on the county Board of Supervisors.