Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: We didn’t stop sewer; we helped improve it

At its Jan. 14 meeting, the California Coastal Commission declined to approve the county’s development permit for the Los Osos wastewater project.

The commissioners found appellants’ arguments more persuasive than the county’s assurances and decided that compelling issues raised on appeal must be examined at a future hearing to ensure that the project conforms to the requirements of the California Coastal Act and the county’s local coastal program.

It’s time for a reality check on the way the Los Osos sewer saga has been reported. Events along the way have been invariably depicted as resulting in the sewer either “moving forward” or being “delayed.” There really is more to it. Although the county has clearly put forth tremendous effort to move forward a sewer project for Los Osos, this project still retains flaws that could jeopardize the long-term viability of groundwater resources and sensitive habitat areas. Contrary to the “obstructionist,” “anti-sewer” frame routinely used to characterize well-founded efforts to protect vital resources, the truth is that because of community activism, this project has been improved and now stands a good chance of being further improved.

The last time that happened was over the spring and summer of 2009, when the county Planning Commission engaged in a genuine search for the best solutions to this project’s environmental challenges, despite much urging from many quarters that enough time had been spent on the project and it should just be approved as is. Important to note: By improving the project, the Planning Commission did not “delay” the project. Due in large part to the urging of environmental organizations, independent experts and community activists, the Planning Commission made drastic changes — relocating the treatment plant, mandating agricultural reuse of treated effluent and 100 percent return to the groundwater basin, aggressive water conservation measures and more. Had it not done so, the sewer would have been dead on arrival at the Coastal Commission. When it did arrive there, persistent citizen efforts did not “stop” the project, but have inspired its ongoing improvement prior to final approval.

Thus, the work of improving one of the largest and longest public works projects in county history continues. We will continue to press for pollution prevention, groundwater protection and minimization of environmental impacts. We have every expectation that a very good project will emerge at the end of the Coastal Commission process.

We hope the county will uncircle the wagons and work with all concerned stakeholders to ensure that the aquifer, the watershed, the Morro Bay Estuary and the long-suffering residents of the Los Osos Prohibition Zone finally get a wastewater treatment project worth the money, blood, sweat and tears spent in getting it. Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Sarah Damron is Central California regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation.