Over the objections of dozens of surfers, divers and residents along the San Diego County and Orange County coastline, the Regional Water Quality Control Board on Wednesday voted to allow less-stringent treatment of as much as 20 million gallons of wastewater dumped into the ocean each day.
By a vote of 5-2, the board issued permits waiving stringent federal requirements and allowing San Diego County and Escondido to cut treatment of wastewater released through the San Elijo ocean outfall, about a mile off the coast at Cardiff.
The City of Escondido and the county hope the waiver will save them money and enable them to accommodate new development. Although federal and state officials say water quality will remain within the less strict state guidelines, critics fault the waiver as environmental backsliding.
The controversy, considered rare in the arcane field of municipal sewage, is one of several roiling along the California coast. In Orange County, public opposition has led to the withdrawal of two applications for waivers. In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley recently changed his position in order to oppose a waiver for sewage dumped into Santa Monica Bay.
The Escondido permit, effective within months if it wins the expected federal approval, would allow the city to switch from the more-advanced form of treatment required under federal law to a cruder type of treatment permitted under state law.
Escondido handles its own sewage and that of Rancho Bernardo, hauling solids to a landfill and discharging wastewater into the outfall pipe. San Diego County discharges a smaller amount of wastewater into the same pipe from treatment of sewage from several seaside communities.
The San Diego County permit would allow the county to avoid upgrading its plant, which would have been required under federal law.
Federal and state water officials do not deny that the waiver will increase pollution. The wastewater has been found to include 34 so-called "priority" pollutants ranging from pesticides such as DDT, chlordane and dieldrin to heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium and cadmium.
But they say the pollution is expected to remain within state guidelines, which are less stringent than federal ones. They also say the pollution will not affect public health, marine life or recreation.
"It's going to affect water quality, of course," said Janet Hashimoto, an environmental scientist with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. "But it's not going to affect it to the point where they'll be violating the water-quality standards."
Nevertheless, people who use and live along the coastline turned out by the dozens for two public hearings on the permit application this summer. And they filled a thick file with letters urging the board not to approve it.
They included real estate brokers, school principals, environmentalists and surfboard salesmen, as well as diving groups and the largest kelp-processing firm in the country. Wrote one surfer simply: "I am a surfer. I don't want the waiver. That is a cheap shot. So don't pass it."
The kelp company, Kelco of San Diego, argued that increased amounts of solids settling on the ocean floor would interfere with nearby kelp beds. Kelco asked for two years of monitoring current conditions before granting any permits.
Kelco and others said there is insufficient "base-line data" against which to determine whether the less-treated waste is causing damage. Some said they found it impossible to accept that the change would not significantly harm water quality.
"It's real difficult for me to buy that," said William K. Mueller, a lawyer representing San Dieguito homeowners. "It just stands to reason that if they say up front, 'We're going to be discharging dirtier water,' how can they turn around and say the ocean is not going to be any dirtier?"
Mueller added: "The whole scheme of it seems to be an experiment to me . . . It seems to me if they knew what would happen, they wouldn't have to monitor it. It's like a big gamble in my mind."
Under the federal Clean Water Act, all sewage discharges were to receive at least secondary treatment, in which microorganisms break down the waste. But state standards in California permit merely primary treatment--settling and screening to remove the larger particles.
At the urging of sewage dischargers in Southern California, Congress amended the act. The amendments allowed ocean dischargers to receive waivers if they could show that they would not violate state standards or damage public health and marine life.
The amendments prompted approximately 30 waiver applications from the California coastline alone, Hashimoto said. Over the last year, she said, the first five have been approved. Eight have been denied and a few have been withdrawn.
"I think just about every plant in California put in for this to be considered," said Dennis Wilson, Escondido's director of public works. The city hopes to save money on energy and chemicals, and to be able to increase its capacity to accommodate population growth.
Wilson estimated the possible savings at $200,000 or more a year--"not a huge savings," he said. "You can't deny the fact that the ability to have a far easier expansion (of the plant) was certainly considered," he added.
But critics said they were willing to forgo the savings. Some said they had never asked for a reduction in rates, and one suggested that the applications were motivated simply by officials' desire to stimulate growth.
"The people in this area said we paid through bonding for brand new treatment plants, we're still paying for it, and we don't mind paying the extra 10 cents a month," said Nancy Skinner, who fought the waivers in Orange County and followed the debate in San Diego.
She added, "The feeling that we had, and I think the people around San Elijo had, is why take a step backwards? When you have short outfalls . . . if the currents changed, potentially that (waste) could return to shore . . . We felt it was a step backwards."
On Wednesday, Mary Jane Forster of San Juan Capistrano and Terrance Theilan of San Diego were the two dissenting members on the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which covers San Diego County and part of Orange County.
Forster said she opposed the permits because she felt that the period of advance monitoring would be too short. Theilan said simply, "I believe in clean water for Southern California. I just feel it would be a degradation of ocean waters."