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A Hole in the Runoff Dam


Local water agencies are making decisions that will chart Southern California's course in addressing its No. 1 water pollution problem--polluted urban runoff--for most of the rest of the decade. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board on Dec. 13 approved a strong new federal Clean Water Act permit to control polluted runoff.

Now all eyes are on Orange County. On Friday, after delaying its vote for more than a month, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a new runoff permit for the northern half of the county. Later this month, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board will vote on a plan to cover southern Orange County.

The unusual convergence of all of these permitting actions during December and January makes this an important moment for a region grappling with how to reduce billions of gallons of polluted runoff, most of which is discharged to the ocean without any treatment.

These regulatory decisions determine how frequently beaches will be closed to swimmers and whether runoff will be allowed to be acutely toxic to marine life, as studies show it often is today. And they play a central role in supporting, or undermining, recreational and tourist economies interconnected with the beach lifestyle for which Southern California is world famous. Economists tell us that tourism related to our beaches contributes billions of dollars a year to the local economy--a good-enough reason alone to step up efforts to protect water quality.

The Clean Water Act permits at issue contain requirements that must be implemented by cities to reduce toxic runoff for a five-year period expiring in early 2007. The permits are best thought of as "blueprints" for pollution reduction. They contain a set of programs ranging from educational efforts targeting the public to technical specifications for new pollution-reducing features in large development projects.

As a consequence, the stringency--or weakness--of the terms of each permit can and will mean the difference between success and failure in keeping beaches open and waters safe for people and marine life.

Overall, the proposed new permits are a mixed lot. The good news is that the Los Angeles board, with jurisdiction over Ventura and Los Angeles counties, approved a strong plan that is a significant improvement in many respects over its 1996 effort, one that environmentalists and some board staff consider a near-total failure.

Similarly, the San Diego board has proposed a set of actions for southern Orange County that is considerably better-calibrated to improve water quality than previous plans. (The San Diego board has jurisdiction over South County because of watershed boundaries.)

The South County plan is focused on assuring that new development does not diminish water quality and on assuring that some troubling beach conditions get appropriate attention. This plan is based on meticulous preparation by regional board staff members and could make a real difference in protecting ocean beaches and other local waters.

With a strong plan in place in Los Angeles, and a strong one set for adoption for South County, the Achilles' heel along the coast is North County. The Santa Ana board approved a plan Friday that has been heavily influenced by foot-dragging bureaucrats and their allies in the development community. This plan is weaker than either the Los Angeles permit or the plan for South County.

Astoundingly, the Santa Ana board rejected or limited common-sense practices that are routine elsewhere in Southern California, including in Los Angeles and San Diego. In an attempt to deflect criticism, the Santa Ana board claimed that its plan was simply "less prescriptive" than other local plans. But in this case at least, "less prescriptive" is doublespeak for "less effective."

All Southern Californians have a stake in assuring that the set of solutions adopted to address our foremost water pollution problem does not resemble a slice of Swiss cheese. Because of urban runoff's diffuse nature and broad influence, efforts in the coastal plain to control pollution can be swamped by inaction inland. Similarly, strong efforts in one part of the county can be undone by weak efforts in another area.

For these reasons, Santa Ana regulators need to view their runoff plan as a down payment on a set of new and stronger actions. These officials, many of whom are new to the board, need to ask themselves if they are doing enough for their local communities. More important, however, given the scope and implications of the polluted runoff problem, the broader Southern California community needs to ask these officials to plug the holes that threaten not only the coastal environment, but ultimately the environmental economies on which the whole region depends.


David S. Beckman is a senior attorney and director of the Coastal Water Quality Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. Robert Caustin is the founding director of Defend the Bay, an organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Newport Bay.

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