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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Publisher’s Notebook

• Malibu Sewer Politics •

ANNE SOBLE

Many of the centralized sewer system proponents try to frame the debate in terms of science versus non-science and downplay the concerns of sewer opponents by saying they are attempting to hold back progress because they fear massive development. If there is any debate involving science, it appears to be between old science and new science, some of which may or may not correlate with the age of the proponents.
The old science is the science that has been spearheading sewering as far back as the ‘60s. The old science is establishment engineering that is the foundation of the notion that technology can accomplish anything—even reign in the forces of nature.
The new science is willing to question established notions, even if it means toppling cherished theories. Its practitioners are equipped with new testing techniques that didn’t even exist a few years ago and have the potential to upend old thinking in a way that Copernicus and Galileo would have relished.
Sometimes, the new science and old science agree, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, caution should be the watchword before signing on to a public works policy that tears up a community for however long it will take to construct a centralized sewer plant and hook up businesses and homes to it.
The proponents of sewering talk about building a plant and sewer lines as if this is an instantaneous process. No one mentions how much roadway and private property will be affected for how long, or how much time it will be before things look normal again.
However, none of that really matters because sewering is not a scientific decision, it’s a political one. The sewer proponents are invested in sewering becoming a reality because that is what is best for them. If the proponents have the power to create the plans, get them on the ballot and shepherd the project through approval, that’s that.
What if people do not vote for an assessment district? Although some say the world will end, the property owners in the district have the option to bring their onsite wastewater disposal systems to advanced treatment levels by 2019. Whether this costs more or less than sewering hookup will be determined on a case-by-case basis. It’s certain that more people will be concerned with a cost-benefit analysis than any philosophy of growth inducement. Larger parcel owners tend to support sewering, as they get more flushes per sewer line when compared to the flushes per single family home.
If centralized sewering takes place, the biggest concern should not be how well the system works, but the degree to which it is prepared to fail. Malibuites will be told the new sewer is fail-safe, just as the Fukushima nuclear energy plant was fail-safe, and the dams in the south and central U.S. could hold back the mightiest rivers.
Failure may be due to a sizable temblor, a 48-hour rainstorm, or someone may forget to throw a switch, or punch in an incorrect code. Whatever the cause, officials will express disbelief that it could have happened. This failure will be unlike anything Malibu has ever experienced with septic tanks.
The fact is failure should be factored into every public works project to determine what its true cost is.

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