Pollution in Aliso Creek is down significantly three months after state water board officials ordered Laguna Niguel and Orange County to clean it up, but environmentalists said Wednesday that bacteria levels are still dangerously high.
The creek met state requirements during dry weather most of the time, according to a report by city and county officials to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, meeting in Laguna Beach.
"We are making progress, but we're definitely not there yet," said Tim Casey, city manager of Laguna Niguel.
Improving water quality is essential if the city and county are to avoid state fines up to $5,000 a day. By the end of the month, local officials must submit the first of several quarterly reports mandated by the state late last year. In February, the water board accused the city of moving too slowly to clean up the creek, known to be contaminated since 1998.
City and county officials attributed part of the pollution decline since then to temporary holding ponds to catch water from a storm channel that receives runoff from the Kite Hill neighborhood and eventually empties into the creek. Because the fecal bacteria count there is unusually high, city officials think one source of the pollution may be landscaping products.
Those ponds reduced bacteria counts by about 70%, prompting city officials to tout them as one effective method of cleaning the fouled creek. But several times since February, water testing found counts as much as 34% higher than levels deemed safe by the state, Wednesday's report showed.
"I see a direction, and we're moving ahead," said Wayne Baglin, head of the California Regional Water Board's San Diego region, which includes south Orange County. He also cited efforts by the city to analyze polluted water to determine whether the contaminants come from a human or animal source.
Environmentalists, however, scoffed at the cleanup efforts so far, saying that the largest spikes in bacterial counts occurred when there was no rain, discounting the theory that runoff from contaminated soil was the culprit.
The current plan "is just not working," said Julie Hamilton, an attorney for San Diego BayKeeper, an environmental group. She said the water contaminants probably come from a human source , which will not be pinpointed until the board takes stricter control of the situation.
The city and county are acting too slowly, she said, and while they drag their feet, the pollution puts the public at risk.
City manager Casey outlined other steps that Laguna Niguel has taken, including assignment of two full-time employees to monitor the creek and oversee hourly bacteria tests.
A proposed diversion of storm drain water to a coastal treatment plant was scrapped, city officials told the water board, because the facility would not be able to process the amount of manganese in the water. Instead, the water will be diverted to another plant in Laguna Niguel better equipped to handle the metal. The diversion will cost the city $11,000 a month.
Crews also are testing soil and grass around the creek, which officials hope will provide clues to the pollution's source.
Environmentalists remain highly skeptical, though, about the city's plan.
Roger von Butow, founder of Clean Water Now, a coalition of environmentalists for the cleanup of Aliso Creek, threatened to shut down contaminating storm drains himself if the city fails to follow through on the cleanup by Memorial Day.
"I've never been arrested before, never even had a traffic ticket," Von Butow said. "But if there's a good reason to be arrested, this is it."