In a corner of the Santa Clara River estuary, red-winged blackbirds trilled as they flitted about the tule reeds, just one song that rose from the cacophony of birds, crickets and insects that call the wetlands home.

Under the surface, endangered species such as the tidewater goby and steelhead trout swim in the ready supply of fresh water in one of the last estuaries of its size and ecological complexity in Southern California.

And much of this is because of treated sewage.

The city of Ventura dumps more than 8 million gallons of treated wastewater into the estuary every day, greatly increasing its size, which some say creates an important environment for the myriad species there. Others argue the effluent does little to enhance the ecosystem and might even harm endangered species there.

Now, the city faces the possibility of having to divert its wastewater elsewhere. Engineers say that could cost up to $35 million – a tab ratepayers would be asked to cover.

“For $35 million, we’d give you an estuary that is worse off than it is now,” Ventura’s Utilities Manager Don Davis said. “I don’t want to tell ratepayers that.”

For more than 50 years, Ventura has been permitted to discharge its effluent into the Santa Clara River estuary. Today, it’s one of the last cities in the state outside of the Bay Area to still do so, despite increasing pressure from environmental groups.

Board hears testimony

The issue is now before the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board because the city’s discharge permit is up for renewal. After hearing more than an hour of testimony at a Thursday workshop, the board requested more analysis and asked staff members to develop a permit that takes a systemwide approach and possibly caps the discharge volume.

“The board wants to make sure the water coming out of the facility is as clean as it can be,” said Tracy Egoscue, the board’s executive officer.

A decision is expected sometime next year. 

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