State water officials are expected to enact sweeping, controversial standards on new development in Orange County this year, aimed at preventing dirty urban runoff from fouling local beaches.
The staffs of the Santa Ana and San Diego regional water quality control boards, which share jurisdiction in Orange County, say they will probably recommend that developers be ordered to remove pollution from the first 0.6 to 0.75 of an inch of rainfall on-site.
Urban runoff is the primary source of contamination of Southern California beaches. The toxic brew--of oil, animal waste, pesticides and other pollutants--runs off from streets, lawns and parking lots into storm drains and waterways, eventually tainting the ocean.
David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said his group opposes such standards for two reasons: cost and effectiveness.
"The sole focus of these approaches is new development and redevelopment, which does not target existing sources of pollution," he said.
But Wayne Baglin, a Laguna Beach coucilman and chairman of the San Diego water board, which has jurisdiction over south Orange County, said, "It's too costly to go back and retrofit neighborhoods to control pollution in urban runoff. The only way to do it is to say at least starting now with new development, we will contain the pollution on-site and not put it into public waters."
The first rainfall runoff is often the dirtiest because it picks up contaminants that may have been building up for months.
A handful of places in the nation, including Phoenix and Florida, have restricted the amount of pollution that flows off urban land.
Such a standard "is easily one of the most significant steps that any regional board can take to address urban runoff, which is the No. 1 source" of beach pollution, said David Beckman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office. "Clearly, it's one of the most important water quality steps taken in California in the last 10 years."
The Los Angeles regional board was the first in the state to enact similar standards, and met intense resistance from local municipalities and the building industry.
Under their rules, adopted one year ago, many new development projects must be built with the capability to collect and treat the first 0.75 of an inch of rain that falls in any 24-hour period. Those rules apply to new commercial projects of more than 100,000 square feet, housing developments with more than 10 units, parking lots with 25 or more spaces, auto repair shops, restaurants and single-family hillside homes.
The Santa Ana board, which oversees northern Orange County, will begin looking at the matter this spring and vote as early as this summer, assistant executive officer Kurt Berchtold said.
Baglin said the San Diego board will begin looking at the matter this summer, with a decision expected by the end of the year.
Different ways of complying include: grassy swales or other unpaved areas around buildings to absorb runoff into the ground; filters to stop oil and other contaminants from flowing into storm drains; or detention basins that allow pollutants to settle.
In Los Angeles, the Building Industry Assn. and 32 of the county's 85 cities unsuccessfully appealed the standards to the State Water Resources Control Board, parent agency of the regional boards.
The state board upheld the Los Angeles rules, saying they were an effective way of implementing the federal Clean Water Act, which requires municipalities to reduce polluted runoff by the "maximum extent practicable."
Smith, of the building association, said, "It will take massive money for construction and maintenance in perpetuity of these filter devices. It's going to exact a gargantuan cost on local municipalities for site-by-site enforcement, all the while doing nothing to attack the existing sources of pollution."
Water board chairman Baglin estimates that the requirements will add 1% to 2% to a project's existing costs.
"It's the cost of doing business," he said. "Developers do not have the right to pollute the environment."
He added that these standards would end decades of poor building practices, when projects were designed to rush water away from new projects to the sea as quickly as possible.
"Development is incremental," Baglin said. " Planners, over the years, never looked at the cumulative impact of what had been approved. It all adds up to be a considerable amount of urban runoff, which is devastating to our waters."
Activists acknowledge that the proposed regulations would not take care of existing pollution, but say it would be a way to stop the problem form getting worse, especially because the region's population is expected to skyrocket in coming years.
"It's not a silver bullet, but it's an incredible step forward if these techniques are implemented on a widespread basis," Beckman said.
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Runoff standards requiring new developments to treat the "first flush" of rainfall are expected in Orange County this year. Similar rules requiring the treatment of the first 0.75 of an inch of rain that falls in a 24-hour period were approved by state water officials in Los Angeles County last year.
Developers will have many options for how they comply, from building detention basins to planting grassy swales. Here is a breakdown of three options and their estimated cost for a typical, five-acre $6.5-million commercial project.
Source: Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and city of Los Angeles