Residents of El Rio forced to help pay for a $30 million state-mandated septic tank removal project were able to breathe a sigh of relief on May 25, as a bill aimed at assisting the mostly low-income neighborhood received approval from the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Assembly Bill 2522, co-authored by Assemblymembers Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, and Audra Strickland, R-Moorpark, seeks to create a Groundwater Protection Fund, which would provide up to $12,000 in grants per eligible household to reduce the cost of removing the tanks from their backyards and linking to a treatment plant located in Oxnard.

“What it entails is offering state assistance to an important part of Ventura County and their community,” Nava says. “Hardworking families are being confronted with a heavy economic burden to meet the clean water standards imposed by the [Los Angeles] Regional Water Quality Control Board.”

In 1999, the board ordered the unincorporated areas of El Rio and Strickland Acres to abandon their septic system over concerns that the tanks may be polluting the Oxnard Plain Forebay Basin, which acts as a storage facility for a massive supply of groundwater that gets distributed throughout the city. It issued a deadline of Jan. 1, 2008, to have all the tanks removed, and saddled the county with the responsibility of coming up with the money to get it done.

So far, the County of Ventura has received only $10 million in various government grants toward the project. To make up the difference, the 1,300 residents who inhabit the less than two square-mile region on the outskirts of Oxnard would face a litany of costs, including a $4,000 to $8,000 dollar fee to get rid of the tanks and link up with the new sewer system; a one-time sewer connection fee of $3,539, payable in a lump sum or in installments over five years; a $37 sewer bill, and a $53 to $63 monthly loan repayment over the next two decades. Should any property still have a septic tank following the 2008 deadline, the state can fine the homeowner upwards of $10,000 a day — all of this in an area in which the average yearly income is $24,000.

In an attempt to relieve some of that pressure, in January Nava, Strickland and Supervisor John Flynn began working on a bill that would appropriate funds specifically for the project. Homeowners in the affected area would be deemed eligible for the $12,000 dollar grant if their “annual income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level applicable to a family of the size involved,” according to the bill. Those numbers were determined in order to help the neediest families in the region, Nava says.

Residents appreciate the concern.

“I am extremely pleased with Assemblymember Pedro Nava’s efforts on this matter,” says Cheryl Peckham, a longtime Strickland Acres resident, via e-mail. “I know he and his staff as well as Supervisor John Flynn’s office and staff have worked hard on our behalf and I am very grateful.”

Last month, Flynn, along with two residents, lobbied before the Assembly Appropriations Committee for passage of the bill. It was later approved by the committee.

“This is a fairly significant amount of money to have approval from the Appropriations Committee,” Nava says. “I have to believe the testimony from the residents who traveled up to Sacramento to let us know what the impact of this would be was very powerful.”

Although AB 2522 has cleared a significant bureaucratic hurdle getting past the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Flynn says the fight is definitely not over.

“I don’t want to count our chickens before they’re hatched,” Flynn says. “We have to get it off the assembly floor and into the senate. It’s still an uphill battle.”

Should everything go as its proponents hope, the bill could be signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger within three months, which would allow enough time to complete the conversion ahead of the deadline. Nava has met with the governor’s staff and was optimistic about their reaction.

“That isn’t to say I was told or in any way got a sign that the governor would sign the bill, but I will say the reaction we got from the governor’s staff was favorable,” Nava says. “I’m the kind of guy where the glass is always half-full.”