State water-quality officials say if it were not for the millions of gallons of disinfected waste water discharged daily, there would not be a Santa Ana River except in the mountains.
But EPA officials in San Francisco maintain that the Santa Ana is still a river as long as there is water of some kind. "From our perspective, it is a river," said Laura Tom, chief of point-source monitoring in the EPA's western regional office.
"It has aquatic life," she said, "and there are beneficial uses to the Santa Ana River other than dumping effluent into it. And we're going to protect it."
A few hardy varieties of fish swim in the river between Riverside and Yorba Linda, including catfish, Santa Ana suckers, even some bass. Fishing is not popular, although people occasionally drop a line there. The river is often used for swimming on hot summer days in Corona and Norco, despite posted health warnings.
EPA officials worry that the tissues of the fish might be loaded with toxic metals. Although it probably will not harm people, minuscule amounts of metal in the water can poison fish and other aquatic life.
The Santa Ana is the only Southern California waterway on the EPA's Short List, which contains toxic rivers and lakes where there are identifiable sources of the pollution. Also included are 14 Northern California streams--mainly small, rural ones with rustic names like Little Grizzly and West Squaw Creek.
Because the Santa Ana has so little natural water left, it poses an unusual dilemma for the EPA. Just a few other streams in Arizona raise similar problems.
"Lots of times Congress forgets there is a western difference when they write a law," Tom said. "It is a very different area out here, semiarid with very low flows. That's why . . . we're trying to be flexible, because we realize this is California."
Since last year, when the river appeared on the national list, contentious letters have been exchanged by the EPA and the regional water board.
The federal agency asked the water board to come up with cleanup plans by April for the waste water plants.
The state agency's response: Do it yourself. Since the agency does not hold a cleanup to be worthwhile, it does not want to devote the time of hard-pressed staff members to it.
State water-quality officials and waste water plant operators are not saying the river is not worth saving. They agree that more needs to be done to protect it, but they also urge the EPA to be realistic about its value.
National standards for waterways allow just a few drops of a toxic metal in every billion or trillion drops of water--a requirement that river water be cleaner than drinking water.
"It's appropriate to meet the highest level of protection for the river's beneficial uses without overwhelming economic and social impacts," Thibeault said. "But the key there is \o7 overwhelming\f7 . The point is, you don't need to set standards that will protect eastern Sierra brown trout in the Santa Ana River."
This month, a compromise has begun to emerge.
The waste water plants have proposed a $700,000 study of the river to see what its realistic recreational uses are and what amounts of metals the fish can handle.
The study, the first of its kind, could persuade the EPA to accept special standards for the river.
EPA officials have not yet acted on the proposal, but said they are receptive. "It's definitely a step forward, and we support the process," said Maria Rea, an environmental protection specialist in the EPA's regional water-quality standards section. "It may very well be that the national standards may not apply to the Santa Ana River,"
But, Rea warned, it is a gamble that may backfire. The study could conclude that even more stringent standards are needed.
Operators of the sewage plants say it is worth the risk because they do not have any idea how they can get waste water as clean as the nation's rivers are supposed to be.
Just one plant in the nation has the technology to make sewage that clean: the Orange County Water District's $21-million Water Factory 21 in Fountain Valley, which turns waste into water safe enough to inject into the county's ground-water basin.
It would take six of those plants to clean up the river's waste water, Drury said.
Meeting the EPA standards would increase residential sewer bills in Riverside and San Bernardino counties fivefold, to an average of about $50 a month, said Joseph Grindstaff, city waste water systems manager for Riverside.
Over a five-year period in Riverside alone, compliance could cost $350 million, he said.
It might be cheaper to build a 50-mile pipeline to ship the effluent directly from the sewage plants to Anaheim, where it is captured to feed the county's aquifers, he said. Then there would not be anything to argue about, because the river would cease to exist.
But no one is advocating the demise of the river, which is crucial for wildlife because it is one of the region's last remaining large stretches of fresh water habitat.