Malibu Diary by Penelope Grenoble O’Malley

Tuesday the 21st in Sacramento the State Water Resources Control Board voted 5-to-0 to ban septic tanks, effectively changing the way Malibu handles the effluent of the affluent.  This unanimous vote upholds the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board proposed prohibition on new septics and a phase-out of current septics in the Malibu Civic Center area while the City of Malibu pursues a permanent solution.

Did you catch that last part?

“…while the City of Malibu pursues a permanent solution.”  Huh?  You mean, we’ve banned the only sewage treatment we’ve got, before we’ve made a decision on a shared sewage treatment solution?

Isn’t that a donkey before the cart scenario?  Shouldn’t the solution to Malibu’s septic situation be analyzed and realized before banning the current septic situation?

Here is what is proposed:  In 4 years, all commercial establishments in the civic center area of the City of Malibu must no longer use their current septic system.  In 9 years, all residences must then comply.

With this approach, there is nothing to step onto.  IF, in 4 years, a sewage treatment plant is not built, then what?

This sewage treatment problem of Malibu goes back at least 20 years.  20 years ago was when the City of Malibu incorporated.  The County of Los Angeles had earlier proposed a sewage treatment facility to be built and enough Malibu residents gathered to overthrow the L.A. County government and allow the City of Malibu to rule its own people.  Malibuans (or perhaps, for this report, “MaliBANS”), feared L.A.CO.’s sewage treatment facility would inspire greater development along its precious 26 miles, particularly though, in the area around its Civic Center.  To limit growth, Malibu incorporated and has been fighting a wastewater treatment facilty for 20 years.

To gain the perspective of history on this subject, read Penelope Grenoble O’Malley’s Malibu Diary, Notes from an Urban Refugee.  Penelope’s work provides an eyewitness account of the politics within the City of Malibu.  By reporting Malibu’s City Council meetings, Penelope’s cast includes current Malibu residents, planners and developers (some of whom are residents, some are not), consultants hired by Malibu’s City Council, Chumash descendants, the writers of magazine articles, tourists, and the County of Los Angeles.  Wildlife fills a role in the community too, although more as a victim to speeding automobiles on Pacific Coast Highway, than as a neighbor who needs space set aside for habitat.  Natural forces: rains, floods, and fires terrify residents, CalTrans, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Archeological evidence and historical accounts place Malibu as the southernmost perimeter for the Chumash, who found fresh water and food at the mouth of Malibu Canyon, where, Malibu’s premiere anglo-resident Frederick Hastings Rindge later established his ranch headquarters.  It is in this area that the ban is proposed to eliminate septic systems (in 4 years for commercial establishments, 9 years for residences).   “These settlements provide a loose geographical rationale for modern Chumash clans to monitor construction sites and have the authority to call for job shutdowns if they believe artifacts or remains at the site might be lost or damaged.”  But what about clean water for Malibu Creek in which run another resident, the Steelhead?

“One enters this hallowed ground along narrow, heaving Pacific Coast Highway, which hugs the ocean so tightly there’s barely enough room for four lanes of traffic.”  Malibu Diary establishes that the main reason any resident chose Malibu was to seek “peace and tranquility and to throw off city fetters.”  Malibu’s anglo heritage begins with Frederick Hastings Rindge, a Bostonian wool merchant, who purchased Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit from Matthew Keller in the 1890s, as a place in which to “regain his health.”  Mr. Rindge died in 1905, just as the automobile craze infiltrated the aspirations of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to force open the Rindge ranch gates, allowing for a public Coast Road thoroughfare.  Mr. Rindge’s widow, May, did not fail to challenge public access to their private ranch, in a 20-year battle against the all-male Board, but as we know, Pacific Coast Highway was created, opened, and paved.

Between the Chumash being forced off the land to enter into Spanish mission life, and the Rindge saga against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor’s relentless crusade for a public Coast Road to connect Los Angeles with Ventura, José Bartolomé Tapia originally established, by a Spanish land grant, the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit.  Tapia enjoyed his 13,330 acres for 20 years.  Tapia’s widow had to sell the rancho for 400 pesos once the Americans rushed to find gold in California and denied proof of claim to any Spanish land grants.  Tapia may be the only owner to have ever enjoyed Malibu to its fullest.


Each of us has his own earthly paradise, a place and time on earth where, if we had our choice, we would want to live for the rest of our life. Lawrence Clark Powell.


Penelope’s Diary reads like a Joan Didion reportage on California’s water system or freeway traffic management, but may also be described as a post-Muir piece, of how one California community developed after settlement, and how that populace determines land use.  Malibu Diary allows us to connect-the-dots from September 21, 2010 back to 1991, when the City of Malibu incorporated, in the community’s attempt to challenge Los Angeles County’s determination that a wastewater treatment plan was necessary for Malibu.

“The restaurants, banks, and beauty parlors in the civic center are still cycling their wastewater through septic systems, and many in Malibu still blame the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s water reclamation facility upstream in Malibu Canyon for the bacteria that pollute Malibu Creek and Lagoon.”  (Written in 2001, Malibu Diary 164.)

Malibu Diary plays with the varied definitions to our highly-politicized vocabulary:  Anti-Development, Slow Growth, Natural, Development, Environment, Rural.  “In Malibu, “natural” is typically applied to land that has nothing built on it and where largely native vegetation grows wild.”  Penelope then asks, “Do people who discover that a hillside of toyon or mountain lilac is important to their quality of life, rush to trade in their leaking septic tanks and hook up to a state-of-the-art sewage treatment facility?  Or is this connection too vague?”

Reporting from one City Council meeting, Penelope describes the septic problem, “A solution as simple as a municipal sewer system could solve the problem of wastewater disposal in an area that has an abnormally high water table and is located close to a world-class surfing beach, with a creek running through, and one of southern California’s last coastal estuaries at the creek’s mouth.”

Before you go numb from that sentence, try Penelope’s next,  “Effluent from septic tanks has overflowed into parking lots because the soil in this low-lying area can be waterlogged and unable to absorb the output of five restaurants, three beauty shops, two coffee bars, numerous take-out food shops, two banks, assorted clothing boutiques, a movie fourplex, a bakery, and, a chocolate factory.”

Okay.  I get it.  Septic is a huge environmental misfit to Malibu Creek.  But, really?  Our decision is to ban septic within 4 years, and then what?  If the wastewater treatment facility has not been decided upon in the next 4 years, AND CONSTRUCTED, AND OPERATIONAL. then what?  In 20 years this decision was never made, so how can we decide and build within the next 4?

Buy Malibu Diary.
Surfrider West Los Angeles, Malibu Chapter:  Clean the ‘Bu.

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