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New Storm Water Runoff Plan Is OKd; Critics' Environmental Concerns Eased

September 27, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Water quality officials Friday approved a revised plan to reduce storm water runoff from construction projects in Orange County, easing the fears of environmentalists who claimed last month that their views were not reflected in the proposed regulations.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state regulatory agency, postponed a planned decision in late August after environmental groups complained that a county task force to help shape the measure was stacked with developers, contractors and oil company representatives.

The water board gave county officials several weeks to meet with environmental organizations and get their suggestions for the storm water plan, which is required by the state.

"When we started, the process appeared to exclude important shareholders from a very important piece of work," said Carole H. Beswick, who chairs the regional board. "We now have a good product."

Urban runoff has replaced untreated sewage as the No. 1 threat to the quality of coastal waters, federal and state regulators say. Research shows that water flowing off roads, industrial sites and urbanized areas -- and eventually into the ocean -- can hurt aquatic life.

The water quality board, whose jurisdiction includes half of Orange County and parts of western Riverside and San Bernardino counties, enforces water quality laws and issues permits to companies and government agencies that discharge pollutants into waterways.

Friday's approval will allow Orange County to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to implement the measure and avoid less flexible state regulations, which require specific types of treatment methods for each construction site.

The county measure spells out how and under what conditions builders must control runoff from new construction and urban redevelopment projects. Methods include erosion controls, filters, retention basins and landscaping designed to absorb water.

County officials hope to reduce runoff with a mix of on-site filtering systems and more cost-efficient regional approaches that divert flows to larger treatment facilities run by sanitation and water districts.

On Friday, environmental organizations that had questioned the county's proposal described the revised measure as "balanced" and a plan "they could live with." The groups included Orange County CoastKeeper, the Surfrider Foundation, Defend the Bay in Newport Beach and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national organization.

During 20 hours of meetings in the last month, environmentalists as well as county and state officials resolved their differences on more than a dozen issues. They included how to assess the cumulative effects of small construction projects and treatment methods for rebuilt parking lots and hillside development.

"This is not a perfect plan and doesn't include all our perspectives, but we have made significant improvements and compromises," said David Beckman, a senior attorney with the NRDC.

Last month, Beckman criticized an earlier version of the measure, contending that county officials had stacked a 2-year-old advisory task force with developers, contractors and those with oil interests. Though the water board had recommended that environmentalists be included, those groups were largely overlooked.

The members included the Irvine Co., Rancho Mission Viejo Co., the Building Industry Assn., the Assn. of General Contractors and the Western States Petroleum Assn.

County officials defended the panel, saying it was a technical advisory group, not a policy-making body. They said the plan drafted with task force input was more than adequate to meet state requirements.

"The previous submission was a good submission," said Larry McKenney, a watershed and coastal resources manager for the county. But, he added, the new version "is improved and a better plan for water quality."

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