"You have to use different approaches to deal with non-point pollution," said John Buse of the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura. "It's the idea that a consensus-based approach is the solution to watershed management."
The costs, however, could be significant. The program is so new that the government has not yet put a price tag on it. Indeed, officials say it may be impossible to estimate one, given the dispersed nature of the pollution threat.
At a minimum, officials say it might rival the expenditure the federal government has already made on other clean-water programs in the United States. Since the 1972 Clean Water Act, the government has spent $75 billion for loans and grants to upgrade sewage treatment plants.
"It's going to have costs for everybody," Musgrove said.
Addressing small pollution sources, however, could be as simple as good housekeeping. For example, an auto repair shop could reduce water pollution by sweeping copper shards spilled from brake jobs more frequently. Road crews could cut sediment flows to streams by using vacuums to suck up oil-soaked grit when they cut concrete on highways. A junkyard or golf course could divert storm-water runoff into man-made marshes so plants and bacteria can degrade the chemicals before they reach streams.
David Kleitsch, economic development manager for Ventura, said his agency will pay close attention to the program.
"It's clearly something we'll monitor and find out where it's going. It's too soon to know what the impacts will be," Kleitsch said.
The magnitude of the problem requires bold new action, officials say. Despite spending billions of dollars to combat water pollution, 40% of the nation's waterways remain unfit for fishing or swimming, according to the EPA. This month, Ventura County for the first time began routinely posting beaches as unsafe for swimming because bacteria, running into the ocean from storm drains, reached unsafe levels.
Under terms of the lawsuit settlement, state regulators would establish "total maximum daily loads" of pollutants in a given waterway. Once those limits are established, upstream sources will be forced to make reductions to achieve the goals, said Dennis Dickerson, executive officer for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The strategy is similar to one already used under the nation's Clean Air Act, which requires all polluters in a region to reduce emissions to meet the target.
At Mugu Lagoon, where regulators are grappling with a chemical brew that includes pesticides, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, pollution limits must be established by 2005.
In the Ventura River, chemical nutrients that cause algae blooms and stream-clogging litter must be controlled. New pollution limits for the Santa Clara River, plagued by salts and nitrogen-based compounds that degrade an Oxnard water table providing drinking water to 170,000 people, must be developed by 2002.
"This will put some standards in place that everyone can shoot for," said Ron Bottorff, chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. "This is a major step on the way to clean water."
Once the pollution limits are in place, efforts will shift to developing cleanup strategies. In the meantime, officials are beginning to try to find out exactly where all the pollution comes from.
One of the most ambitious investigations is underway on the 100-square-mile Calleguas Creek watershed, which drains runoff from Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Camarillo. The creek, the site of a massive sewage spill in Thousand Oaks last year, replenishes underground drinking water supplies used by farms and 100,000 people.
Officials have spent the past year attempting to identify just where pollution in the stream comes from and to find remedies. The $2-million investigation will be completed by 2002, said Donald R. Kendall, general manager for the Calleguas Municipal Water District.
Calleguas Creek carries lots of nitrate, a chemical linked to blue baby syndrome, which robs infants of the ability to absorb oxygen. Nitrate likely is flushed into the stream from sewage plants, agricultural fertilizers and septic tanks.
"The same problems with storm runoff in urban areas cause problems in Ventura [County]," said David Beckman, an attorney for Heal the Bay and Santa Monica BayKeeper, the two environmental groups that sued to force the EPA to make the changes. "The settlement is a road map to get us to fishable, swimmable waters."