Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Help sustain Los Osos basin

In a recent viewpoint (“Los Osos sewer update,” Jan. 25), Supervisor Bruce Gibson suggested the Coastal Commission’s decision to review the Los Osos Wastewater Project is not needed because the problems the Coastal Commission identified are minor.

But in fact, the Coastal Commission had no choice but to step in to improve the project because the issues are so significant they could mean the difference between protecting coastal resources (the water supply and sensitive habitat) and harming resources.

The wastewater project’s environmental impact report states that about 500 acre feet per year of groundwater will stop flowing to Willow Creek drainage, causing much of the mile-long stretch of dense riparian habitat and wetlands in the eastern part of Los Osos to dry up. Mitigations for the impacts are not specific and most likely inadequate to protect the resources. Willow Creek drainage supports Willow Creek, Eto Lake and Los Osos Valley Creek — all protected under the Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Act.

We’re not sure why the California Department of Fish and Game overlooked these impacts or why residents living near Willow Creek are not up in arms, except possibly for the fact that Willow Creek is just outside the project boundary. Agencies and residents may not have been notified and may not be aware of the impacts.

The project also removes about 1,000 acre feet per year of dispersed groundwater recharge (about one-third of the basin’s total recharge) and proposes replacing that with less than half the amount in only one location (Broderson leach fields). The environmental impact report acknowledges the strategy may not work as planned. Absent adequate precautionary measures, the project can increase seawater intrusion in the basin. Seawater intrusion, for all practical purposes, is irreversible. It has destroyed much of the basin already and continues to progress at a rapid rate. Saltwater contamination poses a much greater risk to the sustainability of the Los Osos basin than nitrate contamination, which is reversible.

The Los Osos Sustainability Group appealed the project for the simple reason that we want the $150-$200 million project to result in a more sustainable basin. We don’t want to find out in a few years that seawater intrusion has destroyed the water supply and residents must pay for desalinated or imported water — or that the valuable habitat, which thrived with septic systems, is drying up with the project.

The Coastal Commission agreed with the Los Osos Sustainability Group on all the points we presented: Broderson leach fields need a contingency plan, project conservation and reuse programs to prevent increased seawater intrusion need implementation language and Willow Creek drainage needs a better mitigation plan.

The Los Osos Sustainability Group will also be asking the Coastal Commission to consider a basin-wide management plan to implement project mitigations and stop seawater intrusion. A similar condition was part of the previous project.

We’ll also suggest that the Coastal Commission takes another look at environmental impacts of the proposed collection system. Even with upgrades, the project’s conventional gravity system will do more harm to the environment than a sealed STEP/STEG system, which virtually eliminates the possibility of harmful sewage spills into the estuary.

Supervisor Gibson suggests in his viewpoint that an $80 million USDA “funding package” could be lost due to the Coastal Commission’s review, especially if collection system impacts are considered. The Coastal Commission is not to blame for delays. Citizens have brought the same concerns to the Board of Supervisors for months, but the board did nothing about them.

What many might not realize is the funding package Supervisor Gibson refers to is actually a 40-year loan, with the possibility of up to $16 million (20 percent) in grant funding. The package could lower the estimated $250 per month sewer costs by up to $37 per month. Property owners will spend much more than that for imported water or desalination if the project increases seawater intrusion. Further, simply including the STEP/STEG collection option in the design build process would save more than the funding package by putting the lower-cost option on the table and increasing competition.

Please write the Coastal Commission to support strong conservation and reuse programs for the project, better mitigation for Willow Creek and a basinwide plan to stop seawater intrusion. Ask the Coastal Commission to also take a look at the collection system. Coastal Commission review of the wastewater project is essential to avoiding project impacts that can have permanent adverse consequences for the area. In your letter, please thank the Coastal Commission for stepping in to ensure the sustainability of the Los Osos Water Basin and other vital limited resources in the area.

Keith Wimer, Marty Goldin, Piper Reilly and Elaine Watson are members of the Los Osos Sustainability Group.