In an effort to better cleanse urban runoff that for years has fouled coastal waters, Orange County Sanitation District officials are proposing a countywide user fee to fund a $25-million cleanup effort.
The fee would be among the first in California charged directly to property owners for the costs of treating urban runoff.
The Los Angeles City Council on July 20 authorized a November ballot measure to approve a $500-million bond to fund a variety of runoff pollution projects. If approved, owners of a $350,000 house there would pay about $56 a year for 20 years.
The Orange County proposal calls for property owners to pay as much as $50 a year to remove bacteria and pollution trapped in the daily overflow from sprinklers, washing cars and street cleaning that swirls down storm drains and into the ocean. The toxic brew includes pesticides, fertilizer, road grime, oil and animal waste.
The money would fund improvements in pumps and diversion channels leading to treatment plants so that as much as 10 million gallons a day of runoff -- about 40% of the daily runoff in the dry season -- can be treated before heading to the ocean. Currently, about 2 million gallons of runoff is treated daily.
San Clemente, which operates Orange County's only municipal sewage system, convinced voters two years ago to adopt a similar fee -- $5 a month for homes -- for runoff treatment. San Clemente would be excluded from the plan under consideration by the sanitation district.
The Orange County Sanitation District has proposed a June 2005 mail-in vote to authorize the fee. Approval would require a simple majority of those returning the ballots.
"Our early polling indicates water quality is something the public thinks is important," said Blake Anderson, the district's general manager. "This begins the conversation on what we need to do and who should pay for it."
Sanitation officials are hoping the Board of Supervisors puts the fee on a ballot, covering cleanup costs for the entire county.
The fee idea will be discussed Aug. 24 at a workshop at the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.
Discussion will be preliminary, however, because district consultants are still studying exactly what kind of fee -- flat fee, sliding scale or another alternative -- to charge, how much it would be, and what construction, operation and maintenance costs the money would be used for.
If supervisors balk at a countywide vote, district officials will ask their board members and the Irvine Ranch Water District to hold elections to fund runoff treatment in their districts.
The sanitation district covers the area north of the Costa Mesa Freeway. The Irvine Ranch Water District is comprised of Irvine and portions of Newport Beach, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Orange and Lake Forest.
The balance of South County is served by the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, which is a coalition of small sewage agencies. That agency has not yet been part of the fee discussion, officials said.
Officials say an aggressive local plan is necessary because cleanup is required by state and federal clean-water laws and all but demanded by the county's tourist industry and environmental groups.
"We shouldn't expect the U.S. government to come charging over the hill with the cavalry and saddlebags of money," Anderson said. "The solution has to come from Orange County."
One challenge for passage lies in Orange County's traditional reluctance to raise taxes and fees.
A fee proposal is better than a tax because it is tied to a specific service, said Reed Royalty, head of the Orange County Taxpayers Assn. But an urban-runoff fee proposal also would have to come with clear scientific evidence that the solution would fix Orange County's coastal pollution problems, he said.
The county has spent more than $25 million in five years trying to solve the mystery of bacteria spikes along the coast that closed much of Huntington Beach in the summer of 1999, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in tourist revenue.
Recurrent surges in bacteria have triggered near-continuous beach closures in parts of Newport Bay and Dana Point. Scientists and water officials now agree that urban runoff is a main culprit, but studies are ongoing.
A recent study by the Orange County Public Healthy Laboratory found, for example, that bacteria grows in the dark dampness of the county's storm drain system and in sediment. Beach bacteria levels tend to spike during high tidal surges as the bacteria is flushed out.
The study also suggests -- as have other analyses -- that bacteria testing may not even be valid to determine whether a beach should be closed because results are delayed by 24 hours, because by then the bacteria may have moved or been killed by exposure to sunlight.
District officials estimate it would cost about $25 million for a permanent system to divert significant urban runoff into its sewage treatment plant.