Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seven Disastrous Years Later: The County's Recently "Accepted" Project Looks Awwwwfully Familiar to SewerWatch

Let's see here... been awhile... does this thing still work? Let's give this a shot, and try and fire up ol' SewerWatch, eh?

Please step back, and be sure to wear your eye protection.

O.K., here we go: [clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, sputter, sputter, cough, wheeze, putt, putt, frooooommmmmm!!!... purrrrrrrrrrrrr.]

Perfect. (Gotta love blog technology.)

You know who I feel sorry for? The people that don't read my blog. They're missing out on all of the fun... oh, is this great!

So, waaaaay back in 2005, before the Los Osos CSD recall election, before the Los Osos CSD bankruptcy, before the Water Board enforcement actions on 45 completely innocent property owners in Los Osos, before a lot of things, I published a story on SewerWatch where I was the first (and still only, of course) media-type-ish person to show how, as early as "June 2004," the Los Osos CSD, and its engineers, had plans for a sewer project sitting on their desks, developed by their own engineers, that was an "alternative" to their wildly unpopular, needlessly over-the-top expensive, technically and socially "infeasible," mid-town sewer-plant-"picnic area" (I'm not making that up, people), "Tri-W site" disaster.

The District's "alternative" (to their Tri-W disaster) project in 2004 -- discreetly titled, "Exhibit 3-C" -- included cost estimates down to the $100s of dollars, and components like a sewer plant located east of town (and NOT three blocks upwind of downtown, as was the case with the Tri-W disaster, that the pre-recall LOCSD threw some $25 million at, from 2000 - 2005), and sited on property "adjacent to the Andre site."

The District's "alternative" project in 2004 also incorporated something called a "gravity" collection system (whatever that is), a small "pumping station" at the Tri-W site, and disposed of the "effluent" (whatever that is) at a location called "the Broderson site" (whatever that is).

And here's where this story goes flying-off-the-tracks EXCELLENT.

About a week ago, in March of 20-friggin'-11, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors -- after four years and $8 million worth of careful, expensive analysis, countless public meetings on the Los Osos sewer subject, and a smidgeon of public input (so I hear) -- officially "accepted" their final project for Los Osos.

Lemme know if this sounds familiar:

After four years and $8 million worth of careful, expensive analysis, the County's 2011 Los Osos sewer project includes [drum roll, please: ptttttttttttt]... a sewer plant located east of town, on property directly "adjacent to the Andre site," a "gravity" collection system (whatever that is), a small "pumping station" at the Tri-W site, and disposes the "effluent" (whatever that is) at a location called "the Broderson site" (whatever that is).

[Cymbal crash!]

In other words, the project that county officials just spent four years and $8 million developing, and finally "accepted," a week ago -- a "significant juncture in the process," according to Supervisor, Bruce Gibson, at that meeting, -- is nearly the EXACT same "juncture" that Los Osos CSD officials, and engineers, had sitting on their desks in 2004, as I first exposed -- before the LOCSD recall election, before the LOCSD bankruptcy, before "fine out of existence," before the silly (yet hilarious) "dissolution" attempt, before the State Water Board enforcement actions on 45 completely innocent property owners in Los Osos, before special legislation AB 2701 (signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, that handed control of the project to San Luis Obispo County in 2007), before the Technical Advisory Committee (and all of its meetings), before the Prop 218 election, before one word of public comment on this topic at a Supervisors' meeting, and before $8 million and four years of expensive county analysis -- $8 million and four years of expensive county analysis which yielded the nearly exact same project the LOCSD had sitting on their desks in 2004, but didn't use.

Instead, LOCSD engineers, and officials, in 2004, when faced with a choice between "Exhibit 3-C" (a.k.a: the correct project for the town, according to $8 million and four years of expensive county analysis), and their "infeasible," ultimately disastrous, laughably embarrassing, wildly unpopular, mid-town "picnic area"/sewer plant, Tri-W disaster, LOCSD engineers, and officials, in 2004, made the choice, seemingly inexplicably, to pursue their disaster... instead of the correct project.

District engineers developed "Exhibit 3-C" at the request of the Coastal Commission, when the Commission asked the District (in May of 2004) to "evaluate whether parcels adjacent to the Andre site [bolding mine] provide a feasible opportunity to reduce potential project impacts."

However, engineers for the LOCSD in 2004 (The Wallace Group, and Montgomery, Watson, Harza) concluded in Exhibit 3-C, "There does not appear to be any economic incentive to relocate the WWTF from the Tri-W site to (a site adjacent to the) Andre site."

[Insert buzzer sound here]

Turns out, there was a lot of "economic incentive to relocate the WWTF from the Tri-W site to (a site adjacent) to the Andre site," in 2004... tens of millions of dollars worth of "economic incentive," as the county's $8 million worth of analysis clearly shows.

For example, the county's 2007 Pro/Con Report, concludes the following about the Tri-W project [all bolding mine]:

- - -

- "(Tri-W's) downtown location (near library, church, community center) and the high density residential area require that the most expensive treatment technology, site improvements and odor controls be employed."


- "It has high construction costs..." ($55 million. The next highest treatment facility option is estimated at $19 million.)


- "Very high land value and mitigation requirements"


- Tri-W energy requirements: "Highest"


- "Small acreage and location in downtown center of towns require most expensive treatment"


- "higher costs overall"

- - -

Rob Miller, current vice-president for the local engineering firm The Wallace Group, worked as the Los Osos CSD's "District Engineer" in 2004.

So, I recently sent Miller an email, that read, in part:

"Hello Rob...

What's the difference between ('Exhibit 3-C' from 2004) and the project that the Supes just gave their "intentions" to accept?"

He replied, "It seems that Coastal Commission Special Condition No. 5 is new, which will result in less flow to Broderson, and then recycled water to the schools, cemetery, and ag areas upon start up."

Then, I asked:

- - -
Hello Rob,

Thank you VERY much for your reply.

So, just to be clear, the one difference between the plan that the 2004/05 LOCSD had sitting in their filing cabinet, and the project that County officials, through special legislation (AB 2701), just spent four years and some $8 million developing, is one condition that deals with water recycling?

Couldn't you guys have accomplished that seemingly reasonable condition in 2004, and then your project back then would have been the EXACT same project the county just accepted?

Two more quick follow-up questions please:

1. In your opinion, was the addition of Condition No. 5 worth the 7-years-and-counting, $8 million of county analysis, the recall election, Measure B, AB 2701, the CDOs, numerous public meetings, and seemingly endless public comment that have occurred since the LOCSD had almost the exact same project sitting in their filing cabinet in 2004/05?


2. Why didn't you, in 2004, as District engineer, just pursue the project the county just accepted? I mean, you DID have it sitting on your desk.

I don't understand: If the project that the county just spent four years and $8 million dollars concluding is the right project for Los Osos, and you had that (nearly) exact same project on your desk in 2004 (and you did), why didn't you just pursue that project then, instead of throwing all of that time and money at the "infeasible" (county's word) Tri-W disaster?

Seems like, had you just done the right thing (according to $8 million and four years worth of county analysis) back in 2004, the recall, Measure B, AB 2701, the CDOs, the county's entire sewer development process, etc., etc., etc. would have never happened.

So, what happened there? Why did you choose to pursue the "infeasible" Tri-W disaster back in 2004, instead of the correct project, that you developed, and had sitting on your desk at the time?

That doesn't seem to make a lick of sense.

Thanks again,

P.S. One more quick question, please: Was the Wallace Group used as a paid consultant by the county during their sewer development process over the past four years?

- - -

And, then, of course, he replied:

I talked to John Waddell (SLO County sewer planner) on Friday, and he confirmed that the County should be the one to address all sewer related questions from the media. Thanks for understanding."

And, then, I replied:

- - -
Hello Rob,

Here's the HUGE problem with that...

John wasn't the engineer for the LOCSD in 2004, you were.

How in the world is he supposed to answer my questions involving (Exhibit) 3-C? That's a LOCSD document, not a SLO County document.

I'll call you this afternoon : -)

Thanks for understanding.

- - -

... and so I called Miller that afternoon, and left a message.

He did not return my call, but he did send me another e-mail:

I’m supposed to refer all media calls to John W for current sewer issues, or Dan Gilmore (General Manager with LOCSD) for District issues. If either of those two call me and ask for feedback, I’ll get back to them right away. I have to follow their protocol for any news interviews.


And, so, I sent him one last e-mail:

- - -
Hello Rob,

Wanna hear something funny?

When I interviewed Steve Hyland (a friend of yours, yes?) at MWH for my 2004 New Times cover story, at this link:

... where I was the first (and still only) reporter to show that the ONLY reason the Tri-W site was chosen was so town residents could more easily get to the picnic area, etc. that you included in the sewer plant (and of course, that decision added tens of millions of dollars to the project, because, as you know, it's very expensive to accommodate a mid-town sewer plant [thanks for that GREAT story, by the way]), he told me that I had to actually get permission from Bruce Buel (then LOCSD General Manager) before I could interview him.

So, I had to call Bruce, and, in one of my most awkward journalism encounters ever, I asked him if it was o.k. if I spoke with Steve.

Bruce laughed, and then said, "Yes."

That was the last time I had to get permission to talk to a source, until now.

I'll call Dan to see if I can get permission to talk to you.


- - -

I never got around to asking Gilmore for permission to speak with Miller, but I did send Paavo Ogren, current Public Works Director for SLO County government, and a former work-mate of Miller when they were both employed by the Wallace Group in the early 2000s ["We thank Paavo Ogren and Rob Miller of John L. Wallace..."], an email, where I ask:

"What's the difference between 'Exhibit 3-C' (from 2004), and the project that the Supes just gave their 'intentions' to 'accept'?" (Whatever that means.)

Ogren never replied, of course.

So, at the recommendation of Miller, I sent John Waddell, a Los Osos sewer project planner for SLO County government, an e-mail that read, in part:

- - -
Hello John...

Did the District's engineers make a mistake in 2004 when they concluded, "There does not appear to be any economic incentive to relocate the WWTF from the Tri-W site to (a site adjacent) to the Andre site"?

Because, according to four years and $8 million worth of your analysis, it REEEEELLY appears that there was a lot of "economic incentive to relocate the WWTF from the Tri-W site to (a site adjacent) to the Andre site," in 2004... tens of millions of dollars worth of "economic incentive."

Additionally, as you'll read in my story, District engineers also deliberately left out millions of dollars of park amenities, and their maintenance "in perpetuity," off of their costs estimates for the Tri-W project in (Exhibit) 3-C.

Here's my second question: Had the 2004 Los Osos CSD, and their engineers, not lied to the California Coastal Commission by deliberately fudging, and low-balling their numbers in (Exhibit) 3-C (in 2004), would, in your experienced opinion, the exact same project that the county just "accepted," been approved by the Coastal Commission in 2004?

I mean, why wouldn't it have been? After all, the Coastal Commission was practically begging the 2004 LOCSD to move the plant to the "environmentally superior alternative," just like you guys did... six years (and $8 million) later... at an immense savings over the Tri-W disaster.
- - -

Waddell never replied, of course.



  • Hi Ron. Great to see you got her fired up again. Next time you let her sit like that , consider putting some winterizer in the gas tank, and have some Ether ready to squirt into the intake manifold. Gets the initial spark going.

    No comments really; The current manifestation discharges a third to Broderson, pretty much what Rob noted. The two remaining thirds are a double edged sword as far a saving the basin. Then again- without amenities and odor control, the current sewer is the T-W (Midtown design),and
    Andre has some high power line issues that may not have passed by the Colonel Mustard (muster) in the Coastal Commission Grand Ballroom armed with a Lazer pointer.

    By Blogger Alon Perlman, at 1:14 PM, March 25, 2011  

  • Alon writes:

    "Andre has some high power line issues"

    Oh, for the love of god, PLEASE, not this again.

    Uh, you did see the "ADJACENT to the Andre site" quote, that I included in my story about 50 times, right?

    Just in case:

    "ADJACENT to the Andre site"

    "ADJACENT to the Andre site"

    "ADJACENT to the Andre site"

    Boy, I even created that cool graphic to hammer the point home.

    I, mean, really? After reading my story, your take is:

    "Andre has some high power line issues"?

    Wow. And the behavior based marketing goes a chug-a-lug-a-lug.

    Bottom's up!

    "the current sewer is the T-W (Midtown design)"

    Well, o.k., but the "current sewer" is MUCH more like 2004's Exhibit 3-C, like, the exact same project, doncha think?

    That was, ya know, the sole point of my entire piece.

    I thought I made that clear. (I forgot... it's Los Osos that I'm dealing with. My bad.)

    "ADJACENT to the Andre site"


    By Blogger Ron, at 11:45 AM, March 26, 2011  

  • Hi Ron, so you are asserting that Giacomazzi and Branin were for sale then? Branin isn't for sale now!

    If they weren't for sale you would need to do Eminent Domain - rather, you'd need to get the County to do Eminent Domain. (That is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons that Step was not chosen - the County does NOT want to go there.)

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 2:16 PM, March 26, 2011  

  • You don't need eminent domain for STEP. Lay the street pipes (like gravity), owner installs tank and hooks up (on his own dime, like gravity). If he doesn't, he gets a visit from Roger Briggs. Problem solved.

    By Blogger Churadogs, at 6:51 AM, March 27, 2011  

  • So how is what you are proposing cheaper if the owner pays for everything that is on his property? Who finances that - the credit card companies? We know it can't be public funds on private properties. What is the authority to maintain the tanks and who pays for it?

    Besides, it was clear from the survey people just don't want Step. That seems to be the point that those still pushing Step just don't "get."

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 1:17 PM, March 27, 2011  

  • You have to do the Eminent Domain before you can put the tank on the property if the project pays for the tank. Roger Briggs comes later - like it went with the CDO's. You can't think that more of those is a good idea? Or if CDOs are in defense of Step it IS an OK thing to do?

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 1:30 PM, March 27, 2011  

  • Toonces, again, no need for eminent domain. Pipes are laid in the (public) streets. Homeowners can hook up. If they don't wish to, they get a visit from Roger Briggs. Not a matter of Are CDO a good thing or a bad thing. Just a matter of, You don't need eminent domain to put in a STEP system. Build it, they will come, and those that don't get a visit from Roger. Problem solved.

    By Blogger Churadogs, at 7:45 AM, March 29, 2011  

  • So you seem to be saying that the homeowner pays for the tank, the electrical hook-up, the alarm and all the repairs to walkways, fences, and landscaping. SO ---does the project pay for the smart meter then that goes along with this set-up?

    My question, how is this cheaper to the homeowner?

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 10:49 AM, March 29, 2011  

  • It's a little more complicated than that, but I’m not climbing that mountain (of documents and reports) again. So I'll just say that Chura is more correct. STEP was Not Infeasible. In that the owner already has a septic which will need replacing (80+ percent of septics in PZ wouldn't meet Any project standards.(including a ST Mgmt plan). And the issue is discharge. If the county had a compelling reason to choose STEP (Due to overwhelming social feasibility, ferinstance) the county would had gone through and solved those problems. It's what engineers do. As for cheaper- No. The Ripley plan would had required significantly more tweaking but well within what is normal and happens all the time. And there are more known and unknown complications that the county wouldn't want to deal with. (Lawsuits, right of inspection, regulatory review). As far as I am concerned, the STEP advocacy (You couldn’t micturate on the BOS floor without hitting at least two newly minted STEP experts. AND the insistence on mixing it up with all the other craziness is what killed STEP.
    Yep, STEP Advocates smothered STEP in its sleep. Just rolled right over it.
    Solving problems? It's not always what advocates do.
    Just my humble opinion, mind you, and what do I know?
    Ron Yep You did oblique it as "next to". I looked at the map and saw Andre in RED. So my bad there, but chill. Point is, ANY site has problems, that's why your tax dollars came up with the concept of "CEQA".

    By Blogger Alon Perlman, at 12:25 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Alon, you are right, I do agree, Step could have been done. The Team and the Supes could have come up with solutions. I just don't believe that there would not have been significant lawsuits and resulting time delays. The full personal costs were simply not known by homeowners, leaving them with uncertainty as to what their total payments would be. Plus, a retrofit for this size or geographical components of a community has never been done. So the true-believers mantra of "cheaper" simply did not ring true. You are right - the craziness (and that included much politiking) mixed in with what Step was, poisoned the whole dish. The biggest mistake was yelling "cheaper" when components were missing from the project (that observation was simply rolled over) and questions asked by still open minds were ignored.

    I also think given the choice, for many, having the street torn up was preferable to have ones personal property torn up. I also believe the purchasing and displaying of a tank by a citizen was a real eye opener as to the large size of the tank. Also, that cutaway tank Orenco brought to town was rather horrifying. I resented the blatant salesmanship on their part, although for those of us not wanting Step, it worked in our favor.

    I wonder why Ron is so silent on our comments?

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 2:03 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Darn, They keep pulling me in.
    Step has inherant properties (small Pipes) and could had been engineered to be cheaper, Examples include testing to certify existing tanks. An idea I never got to talk to ripley about is that the granny houses could have had the option to go with a smaller tank etc..(Covenants and legal agreements, omplicated but dooable) Engineering style solutions. When the STEP Newbies started to lecture me on their newfound religion I gave up. This Grandma wasn't going to take the egg sucking lessons. In other words I wasn't going to fight City hall AND everyone with the fresh tee shirt ( the cartoon one that the waterboard staffer cartoon drew) They got to have their fun, and STEP is gone. (vacume too could had worked but as that 4th of july weekend demonstrated you have to be able to isolate sections in advance.$$$

    By Blogger Alon Perlman, at 3:02 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Oh he probably has a life. He
    'l get here eventually

    By Blogger Alon Perlman, at 3:06 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Hi Alon, we may as well chat as Ron seems to be MIA. He will probably not like our "Step" talk as he didn't make it part of the article and admits he knows nothing about "gravity" and presumably Step also. But until he returns…

    Yes, the project MIGHT have been cheaper due to small pipes, but the property owners' portion of the cost - restoration may have been a nightmare, hence the trouncing of Step in the survey.

    Ripley himself said that the existing tanks were too small/old and initially recommended 95% replacement (2003-4?). Then he backed off to say we could test the old tanks, then finally realized the concrete tanks (which the majority are) are not water tight and said we could just line them! So either he said 95% initially to get himself a bigger job or he backpedaled to get ANY job and in the process he blew his credibility.

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 3:15 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • His credibility was tied to his inablity to shake Al off. He needs not be more or less honest than any other contractor but this Job would Ensure his long long term future so he would be Smart about being under the microscope. As far as I'm concerned his 95% represents proof of an honest engineer Being conservative in a stringent regulatory environment.. If a little moisture seeps out of a tank it will percolate nicely in the sands just as the leach field leachate would.
    As long as it's in the gallon a day range it would barely be detected. given the density of old solid stuff microcracks would self seal. My 80 % above is a post inspection and minor repair guestimate. However? if 20% can pass inspection it would cheapen the sewer overall but the savings would only be realized by the newer tank owners. the older tanks happen to be in the older homes and the older residents. Thats where a sized as needed with restrictive covanents could work. This is a discussion that had I been able to start (I tried) about two years ago, with OTHER STEP proponents could had gone somewhere- As in a county willing to take the risk with STEP all the way into a final screening.
    The lesson-It's not about the technology. It's not about Ripley either. and in case you havn't noticed ; Osos is no more likely to get STEP than a well edited hack peice that claims that a signing fiasco discovered in '06 is NEWS will get noticed. So let's talk no more STEP and say we did.

    By Blogger Alon Perlman, at 6:48 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Ha-ha-ha! OK! No more!

    Very good points - but yes, let's get out now (before Ron deletes us)!

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 8:15 PM, March 29, 2011  

  • Rob Miller has NEVER been a "good fit" for being the "district engineer" for Los Osos, not ONLY is he corrupt(like everyone else at the Wallace Group & MWH), but he's the MOST incompetent person I have ever seen to hold such a position. At the LOCSD meetings, he was NEVER prepared to answer any questions. Was it because he is inept, incompetent, stupid or CORRUPT? Maybe, he's all those things! He can't be close cronies with Steve Hyland & be "an honest person". I know he's been in MWH back pocket for years. He needs to be re-assigned, or better yet, THEY ALL need to go.

    By Blogger hugh jass, at 9:29 AM, April 07, 2011  

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