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Laguna Acts to Clean Up Ocean Water

Environment: City passes laws, adds enforcement staff to cleanse urban runoff and cut down on sewage spills. Critics are encouraged but say they want to see results.


Laguna Beach, long criticized by environmentalists for being lax about urban runoff and sewage spills, has taken several steps that could make it a model among coastal cities.

The city has formed a new division in its Public Works Department to improve ocean water quality, and hired five employees and reassigned another to enforce urban runoff regulations. An ordinance passed in December allows tough fines for violators.

The city is not yet enforcing the new regulations, but if employees see especially flagrant violations of long-standing rules that had not been enforced, a fine could be imposed, said John Pietig, assistant city manager.

"We don't want to enforce upon them the new rules without educating them first," Pietig said. The new rules include a ban on hosing down driveways and on over-watering lawns, and allow for enforcement fines.

Laguna Beach now joins cities such as Dana Point, Encinitas and Santa Monica in having an aggressive program to stem the flow of chemicals, animal waste and debris into storm drains and then into the ocean.

Local environmental activists question whether the city will enforce the rules.

"It is one thing to issue decrees, it's another to actually do something," said Roger von Butow, an environmental activist in Laguna Beach with a water quality coalition called Clean Water Now! "We've seen a lot of rhetoric, but we've seen very little change."

However, Pietig said the city has shown its commitment by increasing the staff that handles water quality issues, spending more than $1 million to repair old sewer lines and enacting an ordinance with teeth.

Cities are now being required to meet tough federal Clean Water Act regulations. All are required to comply within a year of receiving updated National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which are issued every five years. Permit applications and approvals are staggered throughout the year. Laguna Beach received its permit in February.

Cities that don't comply with permit regulations within a year can face daily fines of up to $1,000, as well as $10 per gallon for sewage spills.

Since February, the city has issued 39 courtesy citations and three fines. One resident who was washing off paint brushes in the gutter was fined $50. A homeowner and his subcontractor were fined $500 and $1,000 respectively for a broken water main that sent a plume of dirt into the ocean.

Mayor Wayne Baglin said the subcontractor apparently had broken a water main at the home and did not repair it quickly.

Pietig, who was hired in January at a salary of $80,000 to head the new water quality division, said a key aim will be educating residents and businesses about the program's goals and the consequences of not meeting them.

"Our goal is to not fine people," said Pietig. "Our goal is to raise their level of awareness and get them to comply voluntarily.... But we will enforce if we have to."

If the city does follow through, Von Butow said, that would make it a leader in water quality enforcement.

Laguna Beach was pressured to clean up its act.

In 2000, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board fined the city $60,000 for 23 sewage spills, eight of which closed beaches for 29 days over 18 months.

The costs of complying with regional standards are small in comparison to the stigma of knowingly polluting the ocean, Baglin said.

Officials "look very bad in front of their electorate" if the city has a reputation for unclean water, he said.

Some residents say the measures are needed and that they are willing to change their habits for the sake of water quality.

Bob Dietrich, who lives on Holly Street, says city officials have told him he can't hose his driveway anymore. "I assume the city is doing what's best for the environment, and I think it's the appropriate thing to do," he said.

Mike Wintz, who with his wife, Peggy, owns the Golden Spoon frozen yogurt shop on Broadway, said they sweep in front of their shop and use biodegradable cleansers on their machines.

"Any reasonable steps we can take to protect the environment is something we should all be in favor of ... without having to be told," he said.

Except for egregious violators, Pietig said, the city will continue to issue courtesy citations as employees educate residents.

After a first warning, residents will be fined for hosing down a driveway or over-watering the lawn, acts that weren't prohibited under old rules. Fines range from $50 for a first offense to $200 for third and subsequent violations.

Building permit applications also must show that a project would not contribute to water pollution.

Critics remain skeptical because the city backpedaled recently on a grease-control proposal aimed at reducing sewage spills caused by restaurant grease. It dropped an earlier plan to require grease interceptors at all restaurants.

Pietig said the city found that after an extensive education program for restaurants, the number of sewage spills caused by grease blocking lines was drastically reduced.

Baglin said he believes the new program and ordinances will make a difference.

"You have to catch the pollution as close to the source as possible," he said. "That's what we're doing now and what we should have been doing years ago."

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