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Agency Asks Approval to Fight Runoff

Environment: Pollution from inland Orange County is the biggest scourge of its coastal waters, but the request to state legislators is triggering a local debate.

January 28, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Sanitation District is asking state lawmakers to allow it to tackle the region's biggest polluter of coastal waters: urban runoff. But local officials question whether that's an appropriate job for the district and how the district would pay for it.

"There are some frightening financial aspects of all of this," said district General Manager Blake Anderson.

Changing the district's charter, to include authority for handling more than the relatively small amount of urban runoff that it already does process, would set a statewide precedent and create new responsibilities for the agency, which was formed to dispose of northern and central Orange County's sewage. Runoff--car oil, pet waste and other contaminants washed off streets and lawns into waterways and eventually to the ocean--is the most common cause of coastal pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The district already diverts 2 million gallons of runoff a day from storm drains and waterways to its treatment plant during dry weather. This is only a dent in the problem--240 million gallons of runoff flow daily in the county in dry weather, and that jumps to 500 million during rain.

Still, the district has an impact. Bacteria levels along Huntington Beach's shoreline have dropped since the district began diverting runoff in 1999 at a cost of $225,000 annually.

The district is constrained by its charter from doing more. If the charter is amended, the district could divert up to 10 million gallons a day and consider more expensive options, such as building artificial wetlands that would naturally filter the runoff, or building a runoff treatment plant, similar to a $9.5-million facility built in Santa Monica that recycles 500,000 gallons of runoff a day.

Sanitation district officials said they want to attack the problem because they can improve coastal water quality, which creates both health and economic benefits for coastal communities. Their ability to treat runoff is "one arrow in the quiver" of tools to fight the problem, said Robert P. Ghirelli, the sanitation district's manager of technical services.

Former state Assemblyman Scott Baugh, now a consultant hired by the district, is working with Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) to craft a bill to allow the charter change. It will be introduced in the Legislature in a few weeks.

Local officials, though favoring the proposal in concept, are concerned about its ramifications.

"Are we putting the cart before the horse? Do we know what we're getting into?" asked Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom at a meeting Thursday. Krom is also a member of the district's board of directors.

Environmentalists are also divided.

Some critics wonder whether the district should take on yet another challenge. The district is already involved in an ambitious $600-million plan to turn sewage into drinking water, and faces tougher standards on sewage sludge that will require costlier treatment. And then there is the Clean Water Act waiver that allows the district to pump dirtier sewage into the ocean than nearly all of the nation's 16,000 sewage treatment plants. The waiver is up for renewal next year, and a grass-roots group of opponents has persuaded four cities to fight renewal.

"They're just exacerbating the problem," said activist Doug Korthof. "It's arrogant."

Anderson, the district general manager, said, "We're very mindful that our first duty is sewage treatment."

Baugh said there are other possible hurdles--especially whether costs for cleaning runoff could be passed on to ratepayers. Proposition 218, approved by California voters in 1996, requires that proposed new levies be subject to a vote by those affected. There are exemptions for sewer fees, but none for urban runoff.

Seal Beach Councilman Shawn Boyd, chairman of the district's urban runoff committee and a member of the district's board of directors, said of critics, "Anyone that wants to challenge us for cleaning up the beaches--bring it on."

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