Rincon ready to get sewered
15-year battle to end when ground breaks Aug. 30
By Peter Dugré
Soon the 72 homes overlooking Rincon Point will have their septic tanks pumped for the last time in preparation for removing the onsite waste treatment systems and hooking up to the Carpinteria Sanitary District. An Aug. 30 CSD ground breaking ceremony outside the gate of the private community marks the beginning of construction on the $6 million Rincon Septic to Sewer Conversion Project and the conclusion to a 15-year battle fought over where waste should go after it’s flushed down the community’s seaside toilets.
The long road to getting Rincon sewered began in 1998 when local beaches routinely faced closures due to bacterial levels in the water exceeding water quality standards. A group of surfers took note and called for action, forming the group CURE (Clean Up Rincon Effluent). “People were getting sick from the water. They got earaches, sore throats, sinus issues, diarrhea ... and then word got out and more people were saying, ‘Hey I got sick out there,’” said Wayne Babcock, one of the founders of CURE, in a recent conversation about the impetus for the project.
Following CURE’s involvement, Hillary Hauser, an environmental journalist who had written a lengthy Santa Barbara News-Press opinion piece entitled “Another day at the beach?” rallied a growingly aware public around ocean pollution issues. Activists protested outside a Santa Barbara County Supervisors meeting, and harnessing the energy of the rising tide of public will, Hauser formed nonprofit Heal the Ocean and made ridding Rincon of septic systems a top priority. “Surfers who were beating the drum were really responsible for getting this started,” Hauser said in a recent phone interview.
Heal the Ocean ordered a DNA test of the waters at Rincon Point near the mouth of Rincon Creek in order to determine whether the culprit for dirty waters was septic systems leaching into Rincon Creek. Testing found human fecal bacteria near the mouth of Rincon Creek among fecal coliform from many other animals, a finding tantamount to a smoking gun, according to Hauser.
Momentum was all on the side of sewering Rincon in 1999 and 2000. It seemed like a no brainer. A grouping of 72 septic systems near alluvial soils must leach into the ocean. “If you’re sitting on groundwater, on a creek, on sand, it’s no bueno,” Hauser said. She compared Rincon’s situation to similar problems in Malibu where septic systems are also believed to cause ocean contamination.
Carpinteria Sanitary District, then under the direction of General Manager John Miko, started planning to branch out not only to Rincon Point but also to Sandyland Cove and Sand Point roads and Padaro Lane, where coastal residents were asking to have aging septic systems removed. The local sewage plant had capacity to extend its arms to the 130 homes just outside its reach.
But once the planning started, the process slowed to a crawl. Some Rincon residents disagreed that the issue was so cut and dry. They voted against forming an assessment district to pay the cost of hooking up to CSD in 2001, and when they lost the vote they sued, asserting that CSD was putting the cart before the horse. The judge agreed, ruling that it was procedurally backward to ask for residents to pay for a project that has not undergone environmental review.
Hauser called the issue a “catch 22” because the price tag for an EIR was $425,000, and CSD could not pay for the EIR out of its existing customers’ rates. “I thought, ‘Oh god, we’re dead in the water,’” Hauser remembered. HTO lobbied and CSD applied for a State Water Resources Control Board grant to cover the costs and keep the ball rolling.
As the years ticked away, it became less and less clear that Rincon even had a problem. Beach closures had ended. Rincon regularly tested among Santa Barbara’s cleanest beaches and in 2004 was the only county beach that had zero bacterial exceedances in Heal the Bay’s water quality testing program. In the winter of 2005 to 2006, the next wet one following 1998, Rincon received a C grade on Heal the Bay’s beach report card. It was the only beach in Santa Barbara County above a D on the testing for bacterial levels. For the dryer parts of that year, Rincon was one of only two beaches in SB County at an A+. And in 10 years of historical data at Heal the Bay’s website, dating between 2002 and 2012, Rincon has not had a beach closure (http://brc.healthebay.org/?st=CA&f=1).
In a 2008 Coastal View News opinion piece, Carpinterian Giti White, who has family living on Rincon Point, stated, “We are encouraged to overlook Carpinteria Sanitary District’s history of sewage spills, and instead to assume that septic systems are polluting, despite evidence to the contrary.” According to a 2007 letter in CVN from current CSD General Manager Craig Murray, the heavy rains in 1998 led to sewage overflows at the district from stormwater. The Environmental Protection Agency issued an enforcement order in 2002 and monitored upgrades to CSD’s pump stations that were already in progress.
Between 2007 and 2008 the CVN letters section served as a battleground for differing opinions, sometimes mudslinging, about what to do at Rincon. A 2007 vote between the 72 residences tipped in favor of hooking up to sewer by a 41-31 margin, and divided costs for the project in what amounted to $74,000 per Rincon Point residence. Owners could also finance over 30 years and pay $89,000 plus interest.
The intervening years between 2007 and now involved more dogged scrutiny of the project. Initially, project plans called for two pump stations, one inside the gates of Rincon Point, in order to convey the sewage from the homes up to Highway 101 for eventual linkage to current CSD lines on Carpinteria Avenue. The final project designs incorporate underground low pressure systems and grinders at each of the 72 homes and one pump station to be located on the mountain side of the Santa Barbara County Rincon Beach Park parking area.
Project approval was hung up by Caltrans, which had to agree to an easement along the 101, and by Ventura County, which wanted each property to gain permitting and to get up to code before allowing ground to break on the waste treatment overhaul for the neighborhood that straddles the county line. Hauser stepped in again and lobbied State Assemblyman Das Williams, who was reportedly able to bend Caltrans’ ear, and Ventura County eventually dropped its development condition.
Loose ends from both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were tied up in late 2012 and early 2013, finally paving the way for contracting the project out in two stages to Tierra Contracting and Travis Agricultural Construction in early August.
Padaro Lane has not converted entirely from septic, but Sand Point and Sandyland Cove connected to CSD in early 2012. Those projects, which were contained in one county, caused little neighborhood disagreement and no Caltrans involvment, were completed in mere months and used trenchless drilling to place a sewage line under a section of Carpinteria Salt Marsh. The same trenchless technique will be used at Rincon in order to minimize environmental and archeological disturbances.
Rincon is primed for conversion, but questions remain about what that will mean for Carpinteria’s future. In addition to questions about the efficacy of sewering to reduce contamination, those opposed to the project have suggested that running sewer lines to once rural areas can induce development. Currently, the sewer line stops on Carpinteria Avenue near Rincon Engineering, the last building before the undeveloped end of the bluffs. Part of the Septic to Sewer Conversion project is to run the existing line out to 150 and down to Rincon, alongside the Bluffs 3 property, which is zoned for a resort.
Heal The Ocean, having cleared impossible hurdles in order to end the era of septic systems on much of the coast surrounding Carpinteria, will hold a celebration party on Sept. 8 at Elings Park in Santa Barbara.