Victorville council approves $1.5 million water board settlement November 7, 2019

VICTORVILLE — The City Council on Tuesday agreed to pay a $1.5 million settlement to a local water board, which claimed the city’s negligence led to discharges of raw sewage into a Mojave River tributary.

In a civil complaint from 2016, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board cited six sanitary sewer overflows — or spills — that occurred between March 2014 and May 2016. The largest sent more than 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the tributary.

The water board also charged the city with a failure to properly manage, operate, and maintain all parts of its sanitary sewer from March 5, 2014 through December 9, 2015.

Lahontan had originally imposed a fine of about $6.3 million for the alleged violations.

On Tuesday, City Manager Keith Metzler told the council the amount was reduced largely due to staff working directly with Lahontan to ensure we’re not only taking this issue serious but we’re putting corrective measures in place to better prevent SSOs from occurring in the future.

One of those corrective measures happened in June 2018, when the council approved an increase in sewer rates over a five-year period. The average single-family residential sewer bill jumped from $26.89 to $33.03 on Aug. 1, 2018 and increases to $47.18 by July 1, 2022.

Rates hadn’t been raised since 2012, city officials said, and were needed to offset deficit spending and invest in projects improving the sewer system.

Metzler said had a rate plan been adopted earlier, several deficiencies Lahontan alleged in their complaint likely would’ve been dealt with 10 years prior.

The 11 million gallons of sewage overflowed in a remote area between tracts of homes northwest of Puesta Del Sol Elementary School in September 2015.

Vandals had stuffed a manhole with debris, city crews discovered, causing the spill which they determined had started nine days earlier. The sewage flowed into Turner Wash, a direct tributary of the Mojave River, which was dry at the time.

Factors aggravating the spill, Lahontan alleged, were the city’s failure to have an adequate sewer management plan in place and a lack of coordination with a wastewater treatment plant to develop an alarm system.

The water board also contended the city had knowledge of ongoing issues with vandalism and inadequate maintenance.

Since the complaint was filed back in July 2016, the city has updated the sewer plan to include a SSO emergency response plan and identify existing and future projects needed, according to a staff report. City spokesperson Sue Jones said flow monitoring alarms are employed in certain locations.

Metzler said $4.2-million has been spent to clean, inspect and assess about 385 miles of sewer lines.

Other spills Lahontan cited in their complaint were caused by the buildup of fats, oils and greases. Metzler said an outreach program had been created to inform the public of proper dumping.

Over 11,000 feet of sewer mains were lined with resin to extend their life, a $321,168 project which was completed in January.

Six improvement projects planned for the future will cost about $10.6 million, according to city estimates, with an additional $10 million more for further sewer lining.

Half of the settlement, or $750,000, Metzler said, will go towards a grant program to assist Old Town residents who have septic tanks to connect to the city’s system.

The proposal will go through a 30-day public comment period. The Lahontan board will then receive those responses and consider the settlement at a meeting in March 2020.

Source: Martin Estacio, Daily Press