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Orange County

State Delays Vote on O.C. Storm Runoff Plan

Critics say an advisory panel was stacked against environmental views. Without a local policy, tougher state rules may apply.

August 23, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Faced with criticism that Orange County had stacked an environmental advisory task force with construction and oil interests, state water officials on Friday delayed approval of a long-awaited plan for reducing storm water pollution from new buildings and redevelopment projects.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, delayed the vote until Sept. 26 and requested that all parties with a stake in the plan, including environmental groups, be given a chance to shape the proposal.

As a condition of the terms of its state discharge permit, the county must develop a management plan for new construction to help control urban runoff, which has become the No. 1 threat to the quality of coastal water. Research shows that water flowing off of roads, industrial sites, and urbanized areas can be toxic and harmful to aquatic life.

"I am disappointed we are at this point. I am disappointed with the county. There has been a breakdown," said John B. Withersa board member. "We are in an awkward position because all people have not been considered."

The county has 24 working days to come up with an acceptable storm water plan or live with stringent state standards that would go into effect Oct. 1. County officials say the state rules might be more costly to implement because they mandate specific types of filters, drains and landscaping, in contrast to the county's more flexible approach.

The regional board delayed the decision after the environmental group Orange County CoastKeeper complained that it had not been notified by the board or the county about the proposed storm water plan -- a potential violation of the county's water discharge permit.

The group said it was shut out of the plan's public comment phase, during which groups and individuals can make recommendations.

"We are a stakeholder," Garry Brown, CoastKeeper's executive director, told the board. "We are not happy with the county that the environmental community has been left out."

CoastKeeper's complaint coincides with recent criticism from other environmental groups that the county had stacked an advisory panel for the plan with powerful developers, contractors and oil interests. Some groups elsewhere have gone to court to stop storm water regulations.

Task force members include the Irvine Co., the Rancho Mission Viejo Co., the Assn. of General Contractors, the Building Industry Assn., and the Western States Petroleum Assn.

Also on the panel are nine cities and other government agencies affected by the plan, such as water and sanitation districts.

"The county almost solely put those people on the task force to make the plan weaker," said David Beckman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization involved with storm water issues.

County officials defended the task force as a technical advisory group, not a policy-making body.

The proposed storm water management plan, they say, more than meets state requirements.

No violation of the county's discharge permit has occurred, county officials said, because there has been ample time since March for environmental groups and others to provide the county with their views and recommendations.

"We certainly feel the sting," said Larry McKenney, a watershed and coastal resources manager for the county. "We welcome the task to work with the stakeholders, and we will do what's in our power to resolve this."

Environmentalists and water quality regulators say there are many unresolved issues related to the proposed storm water management plan. Such plans spell out how and under what conditions builders are to control storm water runoff.

Among other things, environmentalists say that the county plan does not adequately require developers to assess the cumulative impact of runoff from small projects.

Nor does it require municipalities to review their general plans, they said, to ensure they comply with the latest storm water regulations.

The California Coastal Commission notified the regional board last week of its concerns. The agency's staff noted that exemptions for certain types of projects should be removed from the plan and that the Orange County plan is weaker than those in other areas of Southern California, particularly in San Diego County.

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