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Laguna Beach Talking Tough on Runoff Pollution

Environment: Plan to pump dirty Aliso Creek water out to sea just a 'Band-Aid,' city complains. Some want to close beach or fine upstream cities.


LAGUNA BEACH — The idea was a simple one. If polluted Aliso Creek water were prevented from contaminating nearby Aliso Beach, swimmers and surfers could enjoy a cleaner ocean in the summer.

It sounded good to the county's Environmental Management Agency and the Aliso Water Management Agency, which recently took their proposal to pump the creek's water far out to sea before the city's Design Review Board.

But to the dismayed board, the proposal was only a "Band-Aid" approach to solving the creek's chronic pollution problems, largely caused by street runoff from storm drains that spill into the creek from Laguna Hills, Lake Forest and other inland cities.

Now, frustrated city officials here are talking about more severe steps to stop the pollution that for years has flowed into the coastal paradise of Laguna Beach.

Some are advocating closing the beach outright rather than expose people to contamination. And others say they'd like to fine upstream cities that fill the creek with urban runoff that floats down to the ocean.

Everybody seems to agree on at least one point: Some means must be found to rejuvenate a task force representing half a dozen south Orange County cities, the county, and eight water and sewage districts that have a stake in a regional approach to solving the problem.

Design Review Board member Sam Goldstein showed his lack of enthusiasm for the proposal to pipe the dirty creek water out to sea.

"I felt it was a Band-Aid on a situation much more lethal because we're talking toxic pollutants in that creek," Goldstein said. "Maybe we should close the beach to help draw attention to the problem. The only time when we get major response from people is when we get in a crisis condition."

Closing the beach is one among numerous suggestions. One city official is talking about fining upstream polluters. Others are considering proposals for wetlands restoration or ponding systems that filter runoff before it goes farther downstream.

Last year, unauthorized discharges or sewage spills caused the creek to be closed for 24 days.

But pollution takes many forms, and urban runoff includes motor oil, grease, antifreeze, brake lining asbestos, air pollutants that have settled on the ground, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and animal feces.

"[Upstream cities] have no incentive to stop polluting," board member Al Oligino said. "They're flushing their pollutants downstream."

Pulling out of crisis situations has become a lifestyle for many of Laguna Beach's 23,200 residents. Its scenic beauty and tranquil setting was first attacked by the Laguna fire in 1993 that wiped out nearly 380 homes, and was then followed by severe flooding last year.

Now, the city is faced with a crisis of a different sort. Each summer the creek slows to a trickle and becomes a smelly pond with two to four times the allowable fecal coliform bacteria, forcing closure of nearby Aliso Beach.

In the summer, normal surf action pushes up sand and plugs the creek's mouth, forming a pond that cooks up bacteria and other ingredients into a polluted stew.

To prevent that, the county and water agency had proposed building a 3-foot-tall sand berm that would dam the creek 300 feet up from Pacific Coast Highway. There, officials planned to pump the creek's water into a large sewer pipeline and send it 2 1/2 miles out to sea, where it would be released in 200 feet of water.

The water agency and the county favored the idea because it was a "low-cost, low-tech" project that could be installed for about $20,000.

Mike Wellborn, a county Environmental Management Agency spokesman, said the summer pumping project is not the ultimate answer, but only an attempt to get contaminated water off Aliso Beach for one summer.

But many Laguna Beach residents and city officials complained that the creek desperately needs a long-term remedy.

The 12-mile creek that starts near Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon and meanders southwest to Aliso Beach has been fouled by an increasing number of harmful sewage spills and urban runoff.

Longtime residents can recall when the creek teemed with fish and was surrounded by lush vegetation that was a habitat for numerous bird species.

"When I was a kid, Aliso Creek had trout and crayfish," recalled Christian M. Smith, a Laguna Beach resident for more than 40 years.

But Laguna Beach can't handle the problem alone.

The county had a task force for Aliso Creek that was headed by then-state Sen. Marian Bergeson. But the task force fell victim to the county's bankruptcy. Bergeson, who is now a county supervisor, hopes a recent $150,000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grant may rekindle the task force.

"It is not a Laguna Beach problem," Bergeson said. "It's a South County watershed problem and we need a comprehensive solution."

There is interest among upstream cities to participate in a newly formed task force, Laguna Hills Mayor Randal J. Bressette said.

"My family and I are very concerned about what we pour into our oceans," Bressette said.

The Corps of Engineers will coordinate with the county's Environmental Management Agency, a regional watershed management study that includes both San Juan Creek in Dana Point and Aliso. In addition, the study will include flood control, water supply, environmental restoration and degraded riparian habitat.

Countywide meetings for public opinion on a regional watershed study are scheduled next month. Bergeson said she requested the meeting be held inland for Aliso Creek. Two meetings have been tentatively set, one March 19 at 7 p.m. at Aliso Viejo High School and another to discuss San Juan Creek on March 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dana Point Harbor Youth facility.

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