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Panel Delays Vote on Tough Runoff Rules

Water: After a 10-hour hearing, regulators say they want to study issues raised about the south Orange County plan.

January 10, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA and DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

State water regulators Wednesday postponed a vote on stringent new runoff rules for south Orange County, a controversial proposal that some officials fear could cost local cities $15 million a year and not improve water quality.

"It's important for us to deliberate carefully on all the comments that were made," said John Minan, chairman of the state's San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. "In my opinion, to encourage deliberations, it was useful to postpone [the voting] part of the hearing."

The board decided to put off a decision after a nearly 10-hour public hearing in Mission Viejo.

Board staffers said the matter will be reconsidered after members have a chance to consider issues raised during the meeting, including some revisions that were never disclosed to the public.

The proposed restrictions are intended to decrease the amount of pollutants flowing into local waterways and the ocean.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that urban runoff--the car oil, pet waste and other contaminants washed off streets and lawns into storm drains, creeks and eventually the ocean--is the No. 1 cause of coastal pollution in the county.

The strict measures are part of a permit required by the federal Clean Water Act every five years. They would apply to 12 cities, Orange County and the county's Flood Control District in the south.

The proposal states that "fundamental changes and practices about urban development" are needed because it is a leading cause of water pollution in the region.

Key provisions would include:

* Requiring most new developments and major redevelopment projects to install devices that slow and cleanse the first wave of runoff after a rainfall, which is typically the dirtiest because it picks up contaminants that have accumulated on streets for weeks or months.

* Prohibiting runoff from flowing out of storm drains and polluting waterways.

* Inspecting construction, industrial, commercial and municipal sites for possible contamination.

* Educating residents, city workers, construction site owners, developers, businesspeople and others about the effects of urban runoff.

"The reason they have to do a new plan is because their current plan is so atrocious," said David Beckman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This permit does the best it can possibly do."

Beckman was one of more than 50 environmentalists, government officials, lawyers, builders and residents who testified at Wednesday's hearing.

County and city officials say they are already spending nearly $7 million this fiscal year to comply with storm water regulations in the southern part of the county, and expect the new requirements to add at least $15 million to that cost.

Many expressed concern that the proposed regulations would accomplish little beyond cracking down on people hosing off their driveways, washing their cars and watering their lawns.

Officials from some newer cities such as Aliso Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita said they are worried about the financial impact of these major unplanned expenses.

"I'm not a fan of water policemen," said Joe Brown, mayor of Laguna Niguel. "I think in some communities this will lead to a reaction [resembling something] between the Boston Tea Party and the French Revolution."

Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Jim Thor agreed. "This is definitely a waste of taxpayer dollars," he said.

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