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MVWD study will look at replacing septic tanks in unincorporated area of SB County

An environmental problem that has plagued part of San Bernardino County for more than 30 years moved a step closer to being partially solved Wednesday, thanks to an action by the Monte Vista Water District’s (MVWD) board.

In a unanimous vote, the five-member panel commissioned a study that will determine how to remove septic tanks within MVWD’s service area which includes an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County that in part abuts the City of Chino and replace them with the sewer service.

The board took its action because many of the tanks are leaking and polluting the local groundwater supply, said Justin Scott-Coe, the district’s general manager.

“It was strictly an environmental issue,” Scott-Coe said of the vote.

Board members took their action at a special meeting with only one agenda item: whether or not to commission the study.  At the request of the Chino city council, the district delayed the special meeting one week so the council could discuss the matter at its regular meeting Tuesday.

How much the study will cost, and how long it will take to complete, isn’t known.

The MVWD serves more than 130,000 residents in Montclair, Chino Hills, parts of Chino, and several unincorporated communities. The septic tanks are leaking contaminants into the ground that are getting into the water, and that must be addressed.

“It’s a serious issue,” said Scott-Coe.

The water quality in this area is being polluted by older, sometimes failing septic systems, and poor local policies and budget constraints has made the issue worse.

There is a significant health hazard in the making due to the concentrated number of older septic systems in the area and sewer connection is the only way to solve it. 

That is the view of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, which provides wastewater treatment and sewage utility services to about 875,000 people in Chino, Chino Hills, Fontana, Montclair, Ontario, Fontana Water Company, Monte Vista Water District, and Cucamonga Valley Water District.

In a 48-page report released two years ago, the agency recommends converting the 21,800 septic systems in its service area to sewers. 

Many of those septic systems are leaking into the groundwater, and the agency – which serves about 875,000 people in 242 square miles – believes septic-to-sewer conversion is the best long-term solution to that problem.

The cost of the conversion across the entire Inland Empire Utilities Agency service area would be about $1.2 billion. This cost on a per-unit basis ranges broadly throughout the larger service area, but the report cited the MVWD service area as being more feasible to fix than other areas.

“Funding could come from a variety of sources, including development impact fees, user fees, bonds, grants, and low-interest loans. Property owners would have to be accommodated, but the septic-to-sewer conversion sounds like it could work,” according to Chino Councilman, Paul Rodriguez.

“I think it’s a realistic solution, but it will take a long time and it won’t be cheap,” Rodriguez said. “As for who will pay, I’m guessing it would be the county, the water district, those developing the land or some combination thereof.  Previously the City might have had money from redevelopment funds to mitigate the problem, but Governor Brown did away with those agencies so now that money is not available.”

There are multiple ways to pay for a project like the proposed septic-to-sewer conversion, said Michael Coleman, a financial consultant with Local Agency Formation Commission.

“The county could set up a special financial district and pay for it that way, but ultimately public financing for a septic-to-sewer conversion is something that would have to go before voters, and you would probably need a two-thirds vote to get it passed,” Coleman said.

Regardless of a final financial solution, the MVWD Board said a septic-to-sewer conversion will not have any impact on water rates.

The water board’s decision to proceed with a study was a major victory, Rodriguez said.

“Some people have taken the septic tank issue and ignored it,” Rodriguez said. “The problem won’t solve itself and it is getting worse.”

“Not addressing the septic tanks sends the wrong signal to residents and business interests,” said Jay Prag, professor of economics at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.

“It says public health is not a priority and that will drive away all kinds of opportunities,” said Prag, “Think about it, who would want to start a new business or live in an area where the water is contaminated by leaking septic tanks.  I mean – yuk right?”

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