Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What’s in a Word?

The following “Viewpoint” ran in the SLO Tribune, August 30, 2006

Words, Words, Words. To most people living in or out of Los Osos, the word “sewer” means a system of large, gravity-fed pipes under the ground carrying raw sewage away to a large treatment plant somewhere. The word “STEP” probably draws a blank, yet it’s a “sewer” system as well, one that starts primary treatment of sewage in the septic tank where 90% of the solids can be digested while only the liquid is transported in pressurized pipes to a treatment plant. Both systems are “sewers,” yet in Los Osos, people who wanted a “sewer” but did not want the raw-sewage treatment plant to be put in the middle of their town and/or people who think a STEP system may be a better overall plan for the community are now both called “anti-sewer.”

In an informal discussion, Dr. Wickham, owner of Pirana ABG Inc, an onsite wastewater treatment system, made an interesting but often overlooked observation: Don’t confuse “clean water” with “sewers.” They’re not necessarily one and the same. “Sewers” are installed so a town can grow in size and density. By collecting all the waste you can vastly increase density. “Clean water,” on the other hand, is a separate issue. Morro Bay has “sewers,” but nobody would argue that their sewer outfall pipe is discharging “clean water.”

With little valid science but a lot of political expediency, years ago the Regional Water Quality Control Board drew a line around certain parts of Los Osos and designated it a “prohibition zone” with “zero discharges” allowed. Within those lines, “Resolution No. 83-13 states that all discharges of wastewater from individual and community sewage disposal systems within the Los Osos/Baywood Park area are prohibited. Therefore, a discharge of any concentration of nitrate violates the ‘Basin Plan Prohibition.’”

So, if a homeowner within the PZ installed an onsite system that “discharged” nitrates in the range of 2.5 mg/l that would be prohibited. Yet the RWQCB issued a “discharge permit” that allowed the “community sewage disposal system” known as TRI-W to “discharge” treated wastewater with 7mg/l nitrates in it. Are we then supposed to believe that 7 mg/l by a “community disposal system” is NOT a “discharge,” while 2.5 mg/l by an “individual” is? Clearly, we are now in Alice in Wonderland land.

Most people inside and outside of Los Osos think that “sewers” will “cure” the nitrate problem. It won’t. Since neither the County, the CSD nor the RWQCB ever conducted comprehensive isotope studies, nobody has a scientifically defensible picture of just how many nitrates are naturally present in the soil and so will end up in the upper aquifer no matter how many “sewers” are built. As Dr. Wickham has also testified before the RWQCB, Los Osos could build a $200 million sewer and still end up with high nitrates in the upper aquifer. So what, exactly, is getting “fixed” here? An accurate answer to that question will point to far different “solutions.”

Worse yet, lack of good science too often creates “weasle words,” words that can be used to conflate and confuse and cover up, thereby allowing bad decisions based on false or incomplete assumptions. In a June 10, 2006 letter to Paul Hood of LAFCo (Local Area Formation Commission, the board that will be considering the Dissolution of the LOCSD), RWQCB Executive Officer Roger Briggs states that nitrate contamination can be demonstrated by “a statistically significant correlation . . .” . . . “only plausible explanation” or “a strong correlation. . .” Those are “weasle words” and weasle words always allow for too much “unscientific monkey-wrenching,” all of which could have been avoided by properly conducted scientific studies and an updated Basin Plan.

And so it goes. Words can illuminate, words can obfuscate. They can be used as weapons to bludgeon your “enemies” and terrorize a community. Or they can be used to clarify and understand. Improperly used, words can blind the user to realities on the ground and can conceal any number of hidden agendas and sly thumbs-on-the-scale, all of which can drive a frightened community into making the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons, decisions that can result in civic train wrecks. Or, properly used, clearly defined, honestly applied, words can also allow for the best decisions to result in the best possible solutions.

So, what’s in a word? Here in Los Osos, plenty.


Sewertoons said...

Gravity systems are finite. Once the maximum load is reached, no more additions allowed. Step/steg is a lot more flexible. You can keep adding hook-ups. Put outside of town, Bahman Shiekh claims that a population will just fill in up until it reaches the plant. I'd say step/steg is the best way to achieve density.

Shark Inlet said...


We've discussed this before. You insist that we don't know (for sure) the source of the nitrates. Fine. The RWQCB believes that the nitrates are caused by septic systems. They have good reason to believe this (everywhere else in the world with too many septics/acre with only a short distance from those septics to groundwater has the same problem).

The scientific method would suggest that if you propose an alternate theory you've got to offer up evidence explaining the deficiency of the current explanation. You've not yet done this ... you're just saying that you've not yet been convinced.

This is sort of like the argument between Darwinists and Creationists ... neither side will convince the other.

But in this case, the law is on the side of the RWQCB. Convince them and we're okay. If you can't convince them, we've got to put in a sewer system.

How is the test at the firehouse going?

Anonymous said...

An interesting thought,
Which system would you prefer if cost was not an issue?

Shark Inlet said...


I like gravity versus STEP because it won't promote growth. I like out of town versus TriW unless we'll get a "cool park" out of the TriW site (the park would be a good addition to our community, but I am pretty even on the location). I like ponds versus MBR. I like the idea of AG-exchange but recognize that we have far more water to process than farmers in our basin can use (our basin doesn't extend too far down the valley and any water used more than 1/2 a mile down LOVR past Clark Valley Road would be lost from our system and couldn't even be counted as in-lieu recharge). Ideally I would rather the recharge be done via running pipes to every individual home for grey-water irrigation.

The Ripley idea is good, but the plant is very undersized. Even if we were to do some conservation of water, the Ripley plant would need to be doubled in size to handle 100g/day per person.

However we cannot forget that the RWQCB has some very tight requirements for the project if we're going to get a SRF (and without a SRF the cost of the pipes would cost us far too much). The RWQCB requires denitrification.

We furthermore have a need to stop saltwater intrusion to protect our aquifer.

Honestly, I see state water down the road as pretty much a certainty. Had we gone with the TriW plan, it was a maybe. State water will encourage growth.

Oh well...

Anonymous said...

Growth will come with either type of sewer. The Tri-W sewer plant was restrictive in that a plant built there was ridiculous to begin with, but to add on to it is obsurd! That's part of what was wrong with it, our friends in Cabrillo are contributing nitrates to the basin, just as our friends in Cuesta-by-the-Sea are. Neighbors on Sage Avenue are contributing just like neighbors on Solano. Collecting the water and moving it is what's important, pollution is secondary, pollution is just the RWQCB's bailywick, they can't make us be smart with water management, that's our job and if we don't it will go to court and the Dept. of Water Resources will get involved as a Water Zar to forcably manage the basin.
No growth will come without water. If we don't conserve waht we have for ourselves, we'll need State Water and then development could boom...if we just survive, development will have to pay to import water and then the reality is we will grow. But please, pay attention to Smart Growth Principal's as LOCAC's meeting laid out, cluster development toward the center of town as to preserve the ESHA that is higher quality on the fringe of town, with a nice open space through Switzer-land, as the HCP has laid out for your review...Tri-W is not a good place for a park, we have a park right there, a new park should be established in other neighborhoods. Tri-W will have openspace set aside, its drainage headache can only be managed through some retention basins -- i.e. open space, ball field perhaps? IT will never be covered in asphalt like Ralphs is, Los Osos is paying attention to that property, there's no way the community would sit tight for that (which was approved before many opf our rules and restrictions we are faced with today).
Oh, and don't forget, no growth without an HCP.
Los Osos has resource limitations, embrace them and protect them, so we have good development of things we need/want. A pool, theater, park, resturants, health/medical center, easy to walk to services.

Mike Green said...

Oh! Oh!My turn!
But first I have to chide the shark a little, the question was "if cost was not an issue?"
Of course Sharkey started good, but the cost of pipes soon sunk our favorite fish.
My dream sewer would be a combination of both plans.
For one, everyone would keep their septic tanks (after inspection/replacement and approval).
The obvious benefits of the 24/7 sludge reduction and the higher quality of discharge is desireable, AND
Everyone already has one.
Everyone would get a sludge buster.
The discharge would flow into a gravity system that has as its main collection point at TriW which is mostly underground, the land above is turned into a world class museum/aquarium/ learning and convention center.(rented out)
Due to the higher quality of intake at the plant a smaller area is needed, there will also be the ability to tap into the process to extract water that meets the farmers needs, there will be a pipe running to the fields up the valley that meet the requirements for ag exchange, there will also be a smaller pond for ag water storage use.
The completly treated water is reused as much as possible and used to replenish the aquifer as per the TriW plans.

Mike Green said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I think Los Osos needs a new restaurant... maybe we can build the sewer at Tri-W and include dining facilities.

The Los Osos Sewer Restaurant

I'll let you all come up with a good slogan.

Or how about a food court like they have at all the malls. We can bring in all the corporate chain eateries... you know they pay like $20,000 a month in rent at those places...

And in the middle of the court we can have a bug huge water fountain using reclaimed water. Dont recycle it with a pool underneath the fountain, just a big geyser on a lawn are so the water can percolate back into the ground.

We can all sita round the fountain on the grass picnic style and enjoy our grub from the Los Osos Sewer Food Court.

Anyway, since we were talking about our dream sewers I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents... a guy can dream cant he??

Help me "Save the Dream"... its a good one.

Anonymous said...

Mike, your plan sounds great. All you need to do is get the State to withdraw it's discharge prohibition so we can keep our septic tanks and we'll be all set.

Mike Green said...

What discharge? the leech lines are replaced by pipe to the gravity system.
are you talking about ag exchange?
(the farms are not in the PZ for one thing)

Mike Green said...

Of course there will be a restaurant!
I vote for a french name
"Effluent a la mer"

Crape a la mode anyone?

Anonymous said...

There is only one problem with mr.greens plan. it makes too much fuckin sense

Mike Green said...

Uh, thanks anon, it may also cost too much cents;).

Churadogs said...

Inlet sez:" We've discussed this before. You insist that we don't know (for sure) the source of the nitrates. Fine. The RWQCB believes that the nitrates are caused by septic systems. They have good reason to believe this (everywhere else in the world with too many septics/acre with only a short distance from those septics to groundwater has the same problem)."

Again, I think you missed the point. Does Los Osos have a nitrate problem or a nitrate LOADING problem? If there are no naturally occurring nitrates in the upper basin, then zero discharge collection systems will "fix" the problem. If there are naturally occuring nitrates, then Dr. Wickham's droll observation that you can build a $200 million sewer and STILL end up with nitrates in the water is apt. If what you have is a nitrate LOADING problem, then you've got a Basin-Wide Problem, and probably the best you can do is reduce the loading by whatever ways can help do that, from collection, to "hot-spot" onsite treatments, to using any enhanced onsite systems that will help reduce the loading & etc. A lot of Los Ososians think that once a "sewer" is installed, the problem of nitrates will be "solved." It won't. At best, the loading will be reduced. But the point I was trying to make is that the right answer often depends on asking the right question and all of it depends on using accurate words to convey actual on-the-ground facts -- not "beliefs," as in "Uh, I 'believe' the bridge won't fall donw," or one from Briggs which I love and that's "common knowledge" indicates such and such. As I noted previously, common knowledge is that witches float in water . . .

The point of the piece, which I can only hope came through to most people is this: Words can point to right or wrong directions, right and wrong conclusions, so we have to be very careful what we say AND, most important, what we actually mean.

Interesting that some of the other posters are now actually starting to think about what's wanted and needed. Suddenly, "sludge" is on the radar. Lack of water, re-use of water, ag exchange of water. Use of open space and development. & etc. These are all critical matters that must be kept on the table as the County starts its evaluation of a project. The County also needs to be aware of words and meanings so they don't get trapped. And everyone in the community needs to keep a sharp eye out, too.

Anonymous said...

1. Get the RWQCB off our backs by building a sewer plant that they want with a low interest loan. We have already paid for the engineering and permits for Tri-W. Why throw the money away?

2. Use tertiary treated water to stop salt water intrusion. Some of this water can be used for ag exchange.

3. If nitrates continue to be a problem, treat water at the well head.

4. If not enough water for growth, state water will be required.

Shark Inlet said...


Again, I believe we've discussed this. The nitrate levels in our upper aquifer are high and have been increasing across the time we've been measuring them. They didn't start out too high but are now. They are highest under the septics and lowest under the agriculture in our basin.

Let's revisit the history of this situation. When the nitrate levels were rising and the RWQCB noted that there were too many homes/acre and they were too close to groundwater, the RWQCB draws a line around some of the community and says that this region is likely to be causing the bulk of the problem and a sewer system is necessary. (Other areas have some some reason why a sewer doesn't appear necessary because the number of homes/acre (according to the County planning maps) isn't too high or the distance to groundwater is large enough or the geology suggest the nitrates won't be heading into the aquifer.) The best understanding of nitrates and Los Osos soils and geology at the time suggested the PZ was a reasonable region to require be sewered. If, decades after the definition of the PZ, you want to argue the science you ought to at least come up with a good theory that would explain the current evidence at least as well as the septics cause pollution explanation, an explanation consistent with every other community in the World with similar circumstances (too many septics/acre and little distance to groundwater).

To re-argue that the science is insufficient makes you sound like a supporter of intelligent design.

Ultimately you seem to be arguing for more study before we start any project. Let me ask you whether the Rhodium isotope study would actually convince you that the PZ should be sewered even if it showed the nitrates were caused by some homes ... or would you argue that we only know about those homes and not the rest?

Considering words and information is important for the County and considering they (in theory) should care about what we want, let me ask you (and others) a question which could prove helpful. How much more would you be willing to pay each and every month to have the plant out of town? 10%? 20%? $30? $50? If the choice the County has is TriW or something out-of-town, out-of-town will be more costly because of the time delay ... if you want it out there, you should tell the County how much more you would be willing to pay to get it out there.

Myself? I would be willing to pay an extra $20-$30/month to get the plant out of town, but only if the out-of-town plant won't encourage growth.

Anonymous said...

Churadog says:

"Worse yet, lack of good science too often creates “weasle words,” words that can be used to conflate and confuse and cover up, thereby allowing bad decisions based on false or incomplete assumptions."

Here is a commentator with no scientific credentials, and offering no verifiable data to back her disparaging opinion of the water board regulators, arguing about "weasel words".

IMHO, a case can be made that this article should be the gold standard by which all "weasel wordsmithers" should aspire!

Anonymous said...


Bankruptcy, fines, possible pumping, lies during an election, illegal propositions "B", what is your opinion? Did these people that you defend, defend you? Are you now better or worse for their decisions?

"Weasel words"? Looks like you are a weasel. Looks like you want nothing because you cannot afford anything. Little bit selfish I would think. And now you are really stuck. When the sewer comes in at $300 a month, what are you going to do. Eat dog food? Thanks for supporting a delay and fools: Some criminals like McPherson and Racano.

Churadogs said...

Anonymous sez:"Looks like you want nothing because you cannot afford anything."

Perfect example of one of the points I was trying to make: People making up stuff based on no facts whatsoever.Saying I want nothing because I cannot afford anything (meaning a wastewater system) is a statement made up out of whole cloth. In short, a lie. But you carry on as if it were true. Like calling people who want a sewer treatment plant outside of town -- "anti-sewer" More lies. Which was, in part, the point of my Viewpoint, which, obviously you missed.

Shark Inlet said...


To be fully honest, many of the folks who were "no sewer" folks became "move the sewer" folks.

Anonymous said...

Yes, moving the sewer is an excellent idea. If we have to have one let's Do-Do it right.