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Water Panel Needs Voices

August 31, 2003

Each of Orange County's 2.8 million residents has a vested interest in keeping coastal waters and beaches clean. So it's welcome news that a state agency is delaying a vote on a plan to reduce water pollution so all interested parties can review the proposal. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which postponed a previously scheduled vote until Sept. 26, undoubtedly will get an earful from environmentalists and others who say the proposed plan is too closely tied to industry interests.

Orange County rightly has been criticized for seating too many business types and too few environmentalists on an advisory task force charged with helping develop a countywide plan to reduce water pollution generated by roads, construction and redevelopment. The county says the panel was necessarily top-heavy with industry types because those in industry have technical expertise. But the county should have added more environmentalists to the panel because history shows they'll get into the action -- by invitation or through the courts.

The plan in question describes how the county will tackle the complicated problem of storm-water runoff, also referred to as nonpoint pollution. The unsavory soup that flows into storm drains, creeks and riverbeds includes trash, oil, rubber particles and dirt from construction projects -- and other ingredients that force beach closures and kill off sea life. This in turn threatens the economic interests that depend upon tourism at the county's 74 miles of coastal and bay beaches. The panel includes industry representatives. They contribute to the problem and must be part of the solution. But county administrators who staffed the panel could have avoided this last-minute problem by heeding a 2002 state admonition to ensure that the environmental community was adequately represented.

As it stands, the county will be hard-pressed to get an approved plan in place by Oct. 1 as required by state law. If it fails, the county could be forced to make do with potentially stricter regulations imposed by the state. Explorer John Wesley Powell once observed that when it comes to watersheds, "all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course." That's a polite way of saying that all parties in this discussion should be working for the common good.

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