“If you build it, they will come,” turned out to be true when the pond at Malibu’s Legacy Park opened in 2010. 

Built as a detention pond for cleaned stormwater runoff from the surrounding 330 acres, it became more and more of an attraction for water birds every year. And as the newly planted trees around the pond grew larger, and the water reeds and other plantings matured, the area became a true wildlife refuge in the middle of the city—at least during the rainy season.

Although the pond area teems with life when there is water in it, it looks like a deserted wasteland when it dries up in drought years like this one. All through spring there were dozens of mallard ducks and coots cruising the water, not to mention Canada geese, wading snowy egrets and great blue herons, and shoreline birds like red-winged blackbirds and killdeers.

The mallards and coots built nests there and had babies. Not long after they hatched, the pond suddenly dried up, and the ducklings and baby coots (“cooties”) suddenly disappeared. The waders and shorebirds took off, but the mallards hung around in the mud for a while. The once thriving wildlife community becomes decimated without the pond.

Frequent park visitors began asking, “What can we do to keep it full of water year-round?”

It turns out there’s a probable solution. Since the Civic Center Wastewater Treatment Facility—commonly called the Civic Center Sewer—began operating in 2018, hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated water—way more than the city and local businesses use for irrigation purposes—are now injected deep into the ground every day and essentially wasted. That water could be diverted to the pond to keep it full of water year-round.

The issue came up during a city council discussion during the Monday, June 14, meeting, when Council Member Steve Uhring asked if the city’s public works department could start “dumping water into Legacy Park.”

”It might make that place look a little better,” Uhring added. He was not the first person to suggest such a solution.

Former Mayor John Sibert said in a phone interview, “It makes no sense—the excess treated water is being put into disposal wells.” 

He explained that the pond “was originally designed to go dry, and was just considered to be a facility to handle storm runoff so we didn’t let dirty water run into the lagoon or the ocean.” 

When the sewer was first being designed, Sibert wanted to use treated water for the pond, but said state regulations didn’t allow it at that time even though the same water is being used to irrigate Malibu Bluffs Park.

Today, keeping the pond full year-round with treated water would most likely be a matter of getting approval from the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“There’s nothing that would prevent the city from applying for a change in the regulations that could/would cover this drought period—if nothing else, to preserve a sanctuary for water dependent wildlife,” wrote another former city official who asked to remain anonymous.  

The treated water coming out of the Civic Center Sewer is classified as Title 22 water by the state, meaning it has been filtered and disinfected to a high standard.

However, Title 22 water does not meet the very stringent water quality standards required for discharge into Malibu Creek and Malibu Lagoon. Although all the bacteria is removed, some nutrients remain that the water quality control board does not want in the lagoon. And to remove those nutrients would be prohibitively expensive. 

“In truth, the city could discharge treated wastewater to the pond and not discharge to the creek by just recirculating after treatment at the stormwater treatment facility,” the anonymous official continued.

The amount of recycled water available will keep increasing after each phase of the Civic Center wastewater project is completed, as more and more properties hook up to the system. The wastewater facility, which is staffed by Integrated Performance Consultants employees, informed West Basin Municipal Water District last week that current Phase I recycled water production in Malibu is approximately 55,000 gallons per day, dwarfing the amount used by the city and local businesses—around 16,200 gallons per day, according to a recent report.

“We need to look at ways to maximize the use of recycled water and utilize treated water for other environmental purposes. Every option should be explored,” said Scott Houston, Malibu’s elected representative on the board of the West Basin Municipal Water District, in a phone interview. “And there’s no restriction on the use of recycled water like there is on city water during a drought.”

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