Go to the mouth of the San Gabriel River in Seal Beach, and you'll usually see two things: a flock of long-board surfers drawn by the warm water and long rides, and black-and-yellow signs warning of a health hazard in the water.
The dangerous conditions can't be blamed on a sewage spill or irresponsible factory operators dumping toxic goo. The river has been fouled by water spilling from streets and storm drains along its 29-mile course from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, the river absorbs runoff containing motor oil, pet waste, pesticides and myriad other contaminants that wash off 635 square miles of asphalt, lawns and other patches of urban landscape in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. And the San Gabriel River is just one of five major waterways that traverse Orange County's nearly 800 square miles to its shores.
Only when this noxious stew reaches the ocean do most people see firsthand the environmental damage and health risks it poses. On Friday, county health officials were warning swimmers to avoid stretches of Huntington State Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente.
Finding ways to prevent and clean up runoff has been an elusive goal of federal and state environmental agencies for decades. In California, runoff is a multibillion-dollar problem that often has developers, environmentalists and local governments at odds.
As early as next month, state water officials who enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Orange County may enact standards about what the county and cities must do to stop polluted urban runoff from tainting local creeks, streams and shorelines.
The new rules will cover a host of ways to improve water quality: from the mundane--how often street gutters must be cleaned--to the dramatic--whether builders must install new technology to prevent runoff in nearly every new development.
Because of those regulations, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board is being bombarded with criticism on all fronts.
Environmentalists accuse the agency of failing to adopt what they say are more effective and aggressive actions taken in Los Angeles and San Diego. Instead, they say the board, which has jurisdiction over northern and central Orange County, is catering to the needs of developers and local governments at the ocean's expense.
Builders argue the standards will require costly improvements that will drive up housing costs and still not lead to cleaner water. The county and cities are split.
All this comes at a time when builders are crafting blueprints for some of the last great expanses of developable land in Orange County, meaning the five-year, storm-water permit the water board is proposing will have an effect far beyond its life span.
"The fundamental purpose of this permit is to address the No. 1 source of water pollution in Orange County," said David Beckman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office. "There is nothing more important that the board will do in the next five years."
The water board is proposing to give the county and cities two years to develop a regional approach to cleanse runoff, an approach that some see as less stringent than that taken in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
The regional water board is charged with enacting the standards under the Clean Water Act's mandate to make all American waters swimmable and fishable. Urban runoff, which brings bacteria, heavy metals and other pollutants to the ocean, is public enemy No. 1 in this fight.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported last week that more than half of all waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States in the last half-century followed a period of heavy rainfall and subsequent runoff.
With all the unhappiness among activists and builders, and with millions of dollars in added cleanup at stake, whatever action the water board takes in Orange County likely will be appealed, all sides concede.
The proposed standards anger environmentalists, who say they are vague and unenforceable.
"North of Orange County and south of Orange County, the water boards have significantly improved the quality of their storm-water permits," Beckman said. "Orange County is sort of an island unto itself right now with a substandard approach."
Environmentalist Garry Brown said the proposed rules fail to protect marine resources and will cause already degraded waters to get worse.
But Kurt Berchtold, the regional water board's assistant executive officer, said the board's plan is just a different approach to solving the same problem.
"We believe there's potential in the regional approach because it would have the ability to address not just new development, but existing development," he said. "It could result in more effective water-quality [protection] long-term."
Developers Don't Want Added Costs