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Beaches Provide Lessons

April 06, 1986

Sad to say, San Diegans are used to reading about sewage problems. Most often, the troubled area is the South Bay, where Tijuana-generated sewage cascades periodically down canyons and then works its way west to pollute the Imperial Beach waterfront.

For years, South Bay officials have pushed to solve the problem, but have faced a thicket of jurisdictions stretching from San Diego to Sacramento, and from there to Washington and Mexico City.

Recent events point again to a sewage problem. This time, however, the site is North San Diego County, and the source is not an impoverished population in a foreign land, but the relatively affluent cities of Oceanside, Fallbrook, Escondido and Rancho Bernardo. And this time, concerned residents and officials face not a labyrinth of government, but essentially one state agency that makes decisions in response to requests by local water officials to waive strict sewage treatment standards.

Recently, more than 100 North County residents at a state Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting in Del Mar protested the proposed relaxation of treatment standards for the Oceanside/Fallbrook and Escondido/San Diego County sewage systems. Both entities discharge millions of gallons of treated sewage daily into the ocean, and each claims it could save millions of dollars by lowering treatment standards--allowed under a 1977 federal Clean Water Act amendment--without adverse effects to health or the shore environment.

The opposition has coalesced around fears by residents that, if the waivers were allowed, popular North County beaches from Cardiff to Oceanside could be despoiled by sewage particles, with possible harm to marine life and human health. Complaints also have been aired about the lack of public input in the waiver-granting process.

Debate escalated last week when sewage contamination five times higher than what is considered safe forced county health officials to close a 200-yard section of Cardiff State Beach.

The event provided grist for the opposition's mill. But it should not take a sewage spill to alert officials to the importance San Diegans attach to their beaches and ocean waters. With pressure on resources increasing as thousands of people move into the North County each year, local officials should be particularly protective of one of the area's most precious and sensitive natural amenities--and most productive economic resources. Those same beaches draw thousands of tourists each year.

North County water officials might learn from the results of similar battles over waiver requests in Los Angeles and in Orange County. After years of skirmishing, the state water quality board in November ordered Los Angeles to fully treat its ocean-bound sewage. And in Orange County, a local water agency dropped a waiver request, its chairman announcing that "the environmental protection and enhancement of the ocean environment is more important than the apparent economic benefits of reduced treatments."

We find that argument a compelling one, because the clean beaches of North County are among the wonders of living here and should not be jeopardized. Even armed with the best data, local officials should proceed with special caution and additional public input, lest North County dwellers do to themselves what South Bay residents have had done to them.

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