Participatory Wastewater Management in San Luis Obispo County, California

In 2008, San Luis Obispo County embarked on an unprecedented civic engagement effort to encourage public opinions on a community wastewater system that was needed in Los Osos, an unincorporated community that was entirely served by septic tanks before.

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Problems and Purpose

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson , his staff, and county public works staff undertook a lengthy, ambitious and successful civic engagement effort, launched in 2008, in order to gather public input and support for a long needed community wastewater system in the unincorporated community of Los Osos, which is currently served entirely by septic tanks. 

Background History and Context

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Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

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Participant Recruitment and Selection 

The board of supervisors in the Californian county of San Luis Obispo appointed a 14-member technical advisory committee composed of community residents to study relevant issues in depth, consult the greater community, and advise the board.  

Methods and Tools Used 

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Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Realizing that a significant portion of affected residents might be put off by possibly contentious public meetings, and that under State Proposition 218 a new tax required to fund the plan needed to be put to a vote of affected property holders, county staff got creative in their outreach efforts. They engaged residents one-on-one and in small groups at community events, and sent out informational brochures and surveys to all affected households. They also used a project website to share data about technology alternatives and possible site locations and to collect resident input. In addition, County Supervisor Bruce Gibson holds twice monthly “office hours” where any interested resident or group of residents is invited to participate in an intimate, informal dialogue with Gibson and county staff. According to Waddell, this dialogue helps county officials and staff to be more in tune with specific issues that people and groups have around the project, and it gives those who feel their voice hasn’t been heard the opportunity to speak directly to their elected official. 

“The county board of supervisors and department of public works didn’t want to pick a technology or solution and just move forward with it- we wanted to explore a wide range of options for technologies and plant location, and then work with the community to figure out the final details of the project,” said former public works project manager John Waddell. 

There was a lot of controversy around the plant in the community, so the committee was asked to give the pros and cons of each alternative that the board needed to consider. Small and large public meetings were held that involved between ten and two-hundred residents. 

After a year of community engagement efforts, 80 percent of Los Osos property owners voted in favor of a nearly $25,000 per home tax assessment that will help pay for the new wastewater system, which country supervisor Bruce Gibson hoped to break ground on in 2010.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

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Analysis and Lessons Learned

Having “office hours” where any interested resident or group of residents can have an informal dialogue helps county officials and staff be more in tune with specific issues that residents have with the project. Engaging residents one-on-one and in small groups at community events can help get more resident participation.  

See Also

Participatory Water Management in District of Humboldt Bay, California 

Community Waste Management in Brazil 


External Links

San Luis Obispo County Master Water Report 2012 

Los Osos Wastewater Project 

Getting Up to Speed on the Los Osos Sewer Project 


To learn more, contact San Luis Obispo Department of Public Works Project Manager John Waddell, [email protected] or call 805-788-2713. 

Lead Image: Los Osos Wastewater Project

Secondary Image: Los Osos Septic to Sewer