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California and the West

Activists Fear Coastal Protections Will Be Eased

Environment: Water board says it seeks only to clarify law on urban runoff.


Point Lobos would seem the perfect symbol of the California coast. It has crashing waves, craggy rocks and rare Monterey cypress. Generations of children caught their first glimpse of elusive sea otters there in kelp-filled coves.

To preserve this biological richness, the state made Point Lobos a reserve. In the early 1970s, it deemed the surrounding ocean waters "significant" under state law, offering an extra layer of protection to guard the cleanliness of offshore waters in which kelp plants sway and otters feed.

But environmentalists fear that at a meeting today, the state Water Resources Control Board will consider weakening water quality protections for Point Lobos and 33 other special areas strung like a jeweled necklace along the coast. They contend that the board wants to mollify the Irvine Co., a major developer that is discharging runoff into Crystal Cove, another state-listed marine area near Laguna Beach.

Staff managers at the state's oversight board for water quality say, however, that they simply want to clarify existing law.

The debate comes at a time of heightened public concern over urban runoff--water tainted with bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer, oil, metals and other contaminants that is discharged into the Pacific Ocean and pollutes near-shore waters. As pavement and homes have replaced open land, the volume of urban runoff has swelled in recent years, reaching nearly a trillion gallons annually in Southern California in some years.

Most complaints about runoff focus on its potential effects on human health, particularly among beachgoers, swimmers and surfers. Initial research shows that runoff also can harm marine life. One recent laboratory study of Southern California coastal waters, for example, placed sea urchins' sperm and eggs in storm water and found they did not successfully reproduce. Some marine worms in storm water died outright.

State law now forbids waste discharge into the 34 "areas of special biological significance" along California's 1,100-mile coast. Although some regional water regulators believe that makes discharging urban runoff illegal, some state water officials wonder if that is reading too much into the law.

The state board's acting executive director, Edward Anton, is among those who recommended a staff review. He doubts if the ban on waste discharge into protected marine areas was intended to apply to urban runoff.

"I was here at the board at that time," he said. "It was talking about more traditional industrial and waste water discharges." He wants the board to delay updating a portion of the regulations--known as the state's Ocean Plan--to give his staff time to devise new guidelines. Perhaps runoff could be allowed if it meets certain standards, or existing development could be exempted from a runoff ban, he said.

Coastal activists are alarmed. Protection of water quality in the 34 special marine areas, they say, already has been lax at best. They point to waters such as Carmel Bay, just north of Point Lobos, where coastal cities discharge runoff and a 600-foot pipe sends treated sewage directly into a state-listed area.

"It's always been our concern that the protected areas have not been getting the attention that they need," said Linda Sheehan, Pacific region director of the Center for Marine Conservation.

Leaders of 15 environmental groups sent a letter to the board Sept. 28, objecting to any change in runoff bans. They contended that the law does protect state-listed marine areas from discharges of storm water and urban runoff.

"Therefore, there is no need to carve out special provisions for storm water and [urban runoff] pollution," the letter states. "The only reason to do so would be to weaken those important and needed controls."

The list of 34 areas reads like a litany of California's most revered coastal sites: Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, the Farallon Islands, Anacapa Island, Redwoods National Park. Some lie offshore from cities such as San Diego, Newport Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Any lessening of runoff bans could prove a threat to many of the state-listed areas, environmentalists warn, because of increased suburban sprawl and vacation housing beginning to encroach on once-pristine areas of coastline such as Crystal Cove and Carmel Bay.

The current dispute arose over a complaint about runoff from an Irvine Co. development of new luxury homes on the bluffs above picturesque Crystal Cove State Park. The cove's waters are part of the Irvine Coast Marine Life Refuge Area, which runs from the southern Newport Beach city line southeast along the coast nearly to Abalone Point.

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