Surfing Malibu

A surfer emerges from the water at Surfrider Beach in Malibu. The perfectly shaped point break lures wave riders from around the world. But the chronically polluted water has given countless swimmers and surfers queasy stomachs, eye infections and nasty rashes. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / December 30, 2008)

The perfectly shaped point break at Malibu's Surfrider Beach lures wave riders from around the world.

But the chronically polluted water has given countless swimmers and surfers queasy stomachs, eye infections and nasty rashes.

Long under orders from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to clean up its coastline, Malibu is eager to begin turning 17 acres of open space on Pacific Coast Highway in the heart of the city into a park that would double as a storm water treatment zone.

Many in the environmental and surfing communities contend that the design for Legacy Park falls short because it does not also provide for treating sewage in the Civic Center area, home to the Malibu Country Mart and Cross Creek Plaza, busy havens for well-heeled shoppers and diners.

Legacy Park "was touted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a state-of-the-art environmental solution to the city's water quality problems," said Joe Melchione, an attorney who heads the Malibu Surfing Assn.'s environmental committee. "It's time for the city of Malibu to grow up and clean up their own mess."

And that, Melchione and others say, should include treating sewage along with storm water.

Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen counters that studies showed the Legacy Park site does not lend itself to treating wastewater because it contains relatively impermeable clay. Unlike other, more porous soils, clay keeps wastewater from percolating, or draining, through underground layers. Percolation provides a natural cleansing, as soils absorb viruses, oils, metals, excess nutrients and other pollutants from the water.

Thorsen said the city must use a phased approach to the water quality problem. It expects to begin building wastewater treatment plants in 2011.

It did not make sense to hold off on Legacy Park while a wastewater treatment plan was devised and reviewed, Thorsen said. Better, he added, "to solve our storm water problems [first]. Wastewater will lag behind a couple of years."

Environmental groups say wastewater from commercial septic systems in the area leaches into Malibu Creek and Lagoon and then flows into the ocean, accounting for much of the fecal bacteria and other contaminants that routinely earn Surfrider Ds and Fs on Heal the Bay's beach report card. (The phenomenon also explains the foul odor that permeates that portion of Malibu.)

Cross Creek Plaza's septic system has been upgraded, but the water board has issued notices of violation to the Malibu Country Mart for failure to comply with orders to improve its sewage treatment. In the board's view, the Civic Center area "has reached its disposal capacity."

As a result, unless Legacy Park handles both types of water treatment, "it's a waste of investment dollars," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to cleaning up Southern California's coastal waters and watersheds.

Malibu already is in deep financially on the project. In 2005, it raised $25 million to buy the property -- known locally as the Chili Cook-Off site, for an annual Labor Day weekend festival held there since 1982 -- from Malibu Bay Co., owned by Malibu Colony resident A. Jerrold Perenchio. (Among the fundraisers was former Mayor Ken Kearsley, who said he and a councilwoman spent hours soliciting donations with "a tin cup out in front of Ralphs.")

The purchase was made with a combination of public and private funds and "certificates of participation," lease purchase agreements held by multiple investors. The city's annual payment on that debt is $1.5 million, much of which is to be covered by rent from three tenants on the property -- a Coldwell Banker office, a veterinary hospital and the new Malibu Lumber Yard shopping center, nearing completion on the site of a locally beloved lumber yard that operated there for about 40 years.

In addition, the city is attempting to raise $15 million more to build Legacy Park, which would include an outdoor educational center and five habitats designed to attract coyotes, California quails, red-tailed hawks, Western toads and other critters.

Among those who have written sizable checks for the purchase or construction is a Who's Who of civic and entertainment royalty, including Steve and Patti Soboroff, rocker Don Henley, "Dallas" star Victoria Principal, Eli and Edythe Broad, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg.

The stakes are high for both Malibu and the environmental community.

Here, the battle over septic leaks and water quality is an old story. Malibu incorporated as a city in 1991 after Los Angeles County pushed to build a huge sewage treatment plant in undeveloped Corral Canyon. Residents feared that sewers would lead to unbridled growth.

More than 17 years later, critics say, Malibu has yet to seriously address the sewage problems plaguing the Civic Center area.