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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : The River Everyone Laughs At

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The Santa Ana River--actually a long stream of treated sewage--has been maligned and laughed at. But having it cleaned upstream is deadly serious business for Orange County, whose ground-water basin is fed by the river.

Faced with concern from Inland Empire residents that cleanup costs for the polluted river would pinch them in the pocketbook, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board has unflinchingly come down on the side of clean water.

The recent decision to require the building of new sewage treatment systems or the refurbishing of old ones is a great help for Orange County and an encouraging sign of a regional agency’s willingness to put the environmental health of an important river first. It will also help others in Southern California, either by directly protecting threatened reserves or by preserving important regional water resources that otherwise might have to be borrowed by counties in need.

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The decision ends a long period of debate and means that sewage plants in San Bernardino and Riverside counties will have to be upgraded and that there will be an additional cost to residents of those counties reflected on monthly sewer bills. This $200-million project will be the region’s most ambitious, controversial and expensive water cleanup.

But in making the tough call, the board recognized that failure to act could make the economic arguments against action irrelevant in time. Board member Ira Calvert, for example, noted that poor water quality affects the climate for business and said, “You won’t have to worry about the water being clean enough to drink because there won’t be anyone left to drink it.”

The point is, although household sewer bills will go up somewhat in two counties to pay for the improvements, there really isn’t any choice. Nitrates have made part of Riverside’s water supplies unsafe. Already, six of 19 large river-fed water basins in the Inland Empire are too contaminated to use. In Orange County, about 50 of 500 wells have had to be shut, not from this particular problem but from a similar one, fertilizer from old agricultural areas.

Part of the price of growth must be reckoning with the effects of development on precious resources. This was not an easy decision for the water quality board to make, but it was the right one for the long-term environmental health of the region.

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