National Crisis with Local Pain: Rebuilding Water and Sewer Infrastructure

Morro Bay / Los Osos area

Los Osos and Morro Bay       There may not be too many issues more complex, expensive, or unpleasant to discuss than the emerging national crisis involving the mixing of our drinking water and our sewage wastewater, the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to protect against pollution, and the enormous expense that such infrastructure rebuilding would attempt to assess working families in communities large and small across the country.  Los Osos and the beautiful Morro Bay area of the central coast of California is too small, too far west, and too off anyone’s radar to be ground zero for the national calamity, but their forty year struggle to come to terms with these issues put me on Highway 101 South until I arrived here in the shadow of the “rock” for the first time since I camped here for several days in 1968.

I was lured to Los Osos by Al Barrow and his one-man band Low Income Housing Coalition which has been his effort to “give back” over these several decades in the community where he has successfully built a low footprint, sustainable, and high quality life on few resources.  All afternoon Al introduced me to veterans of this long and convoluted struggle to come to grips with the current septic tank system in 60% of the unincorporated Los Osos community and persistently worked with me to understand the myriad issues involved in San Luis Obispo’s efforts to move forward to build a $200 million gravity based sewer and drainage system, currently financed by a Congressional earmark that would be repaid over 20 years at a dear price of $200 or more per month by the largely working and fixed income community and its significant tenant population.

Al Barrow and Bob Robertson, sparkplugs of the organizing

I was the guest speaker for a dozen hardy veterans and residents of these neighboring communities who sat on a beautiful afternoon on the upper slope of a swale of sorts while I spoke up the hill.  This was a campaign where there were few instances where people couldn’t cite having “been there, done that,” from successful initiative petitions, recall elections, creations of special sewer districts, lawsuits, and so forth.  Many in the meeting were not almost expert level hydrologists, engineers, and geologists having logged in months of study on environmental statements and reams of documents.  Nonetheless, as much as many hated to admit it, they were at the end of the road.  The sewer or something very much like it was coming and the window for either work or whining was closing.

In trying to find some consensus across this contentious, divided community, the issue increasingly seemed to resolve around equity and affordability.  How to shape a plan that would involve future developers – stopped for decades from new construction of more than 1500 undeveloped lots because no water permits could be issued – and the 40% of the community benefiting but exempted for various reasons to participate at some level in the cost and how to move the cost down below $100 per month so there was some chance that people would be able to pay seemed to be the most fertile places to look for consensus.

This is an issue now facing nearly a 1000 communities across the United States.  In this era of neoliberalism the government is shifting all of the costs for what used to be massive federal and state infrastructure improvements onto the citizens, and in this and many other communities there is no way to foot the bill.  There is a coalition and a campaign waiting to be built around these issues, and I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to wrap my mind and arms around the issues and how to breakthrough, but it’s a mountain to climb.

Finding a way to unite a community so long divided in these fights will be a struggle.   Many of my new friends in Los Osos had been embedded in one camp or another for so many years that it was easy to forget that to “win” here would not be a matter of who was “right” anymore, but who could muster a majority around some plan or program.

I got a crash course on the central coast which will keep my mind spinning on the long drive back to San Francisco and the longer flight home.

speaking at the tennis courts about the water and sewer issues of Los Osos

Mark Webber plays jazz guitar to start the discussion

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