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Activists Fear Coastal Protections Will Be Eased

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Point Lobos would seem the perfect symbol of the California coast. It has crashing waves, craggy rocks and rare Monterey cypress. Generations of children caught their first glimpse of elusive sea otters there in kelp-filled coves.

To preserve this biological richness, the state made Point Lobos a reserve. In the early 1970s, it deemed the surrounding ocean waters “significant” under state law, offering an extra layer of protection to guard the cleanliness of offshore waters in which kelp plants sway and otters feed.

But environmentalists fear that at a meeting today, the state Water Resources Control Board will consider weakening water quality protections for Point Lobos and 33 other special areas strung like a jeweled necklace along the coast. They contend that the board wants to mollify the Irvine Co., a major developer that is discharging runoff into Crystal Cove, another state-listed marine area near Laguna Beach.

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Staff managers at the state’s oversight board for water quality say, however, that they simply want to clarify existing law.

The debate comes at a time of heightened public concern over urban runoff--water tainted with bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer, oil, metals and other contaminants that is discharged into the Pacific Ocean and pollutes near-shore waters. As pavement and homes have replaced open land, the volume of urban runoff has swelled in recent years, reaching nearly a trillion gallons annually in Southern California in some years.

Most complaints about runoff focus on its potential effects on human health, particularly among beachgoers, swimmers and surfers. Initial research shows that runoff also can harm marine life. One recent laboratory study of Southern California coastal waters, for example, placed sea urchins’ sperm and eggs in storm water and found they did not successfully reproduce. Some marine worms in storm water died outright.

State law now forbids waste discharge into the 34 “areas of special biological significance” along California’s 1,100-mile coast. Although some regional water regulators believe that makes discharging urban runoff illegal, some state water officials wonder if that is reading too much into the law.

The state board’s acting executive director, Edward Anton, is among those who recommended a staff review. He doubts if the ban on waste discharge into protected marine areas was intended to apply to urban runoff.

“I was here at the board at that time,” he said. “It was talking about more traditional industrial and waste water discharges.” He wants the board to delay updating a portion of the regulations--known as the state’s Ocean Plan--to give his staff time to devise new guidelines. Perhaps runoff could be allowed if it meets certain standards, or existing development could be exempted from a runoff ban, he said.

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Coastal activists are alarmed. Protection of water quality in the 34 special marine areas, they say, already has been lax at best. They point to waters such as Carmel Bay, just north of Point Lobos, where coastal cities discharge runoff and a 600-foot pipe sends treated sewage directly into a state-listed area.

“It’s always been our concern that the protected areas have not been getting the attention that they need,” said Linda Sheehan, Pacific region director of the Center for Marine Conservation.

Leaders of 15 environmental groups sent a letter to the board Sept. 28, objecting to any change in runoff bans. They contended that the law does protect state-listed marine areas from discharges of storm water and urban runoff.

“Therefore, there is no need to carve out special provisions for storm water and [urban runoff] pollution,” the letter states. “The only reason to do so would be to weaken those important and needed controls.”

The list of 34 areas reads like a litany of California’s most revered coastal sites: Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, the Farallon Islands, Anacapa Island, Redwoods National Park. Some lie offshore from cities such as San Diego, Newport Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Any lessening of runoff bans could prove a threat to many of the state-listed areas, environmentalists warn, because of increased suburban sprawl and vacation housing beginning to encroach on once-pristine areas of coastline such as Crystal Cove and Carmel Bay.

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The current dispute arose over a complaint about runoff from an Irvine Co. development of new luxury homes on the bluffs above picturesque Crystal Cove State Park. The cove’s waters are part of the Irvine Coast Marine Life Refuge Area, which runs from the southern Newport Beach city line southeast along the coast nearly to Abalone Point.

Regulators with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board raised concerns more than a year ago, saying that discharges from the Irvine Co. development appeared to be forbidden under the state law. The debate erupted anew when a Crystal Cove activist recently noticed increased runoff emptying onto the state park beach from an old concrete culvert. She explored inside the culvert and found a new network of pipes running inland under the Irvine Co. construction site.

The Irvine Co. and regulators agree that the developer received all needed approvals to construct the pipes. But two back-to-back spills drew more scrutiny. The Santa Ana board staff said it would order the Irvine Co. to halt discharges onto the beach, citing the ban on waste discharges.

Coastal activists are expected to speak out against the need for such guidelines at a state board public workshop today in Sacramento.

The debate is being monitored closely by water officials along the coast.

In the city of Newport Beach, five storm drains direct runoff from residential streets offshore into another of the 34 state-listed marine areas. The city has never heard from regulators about the discharges, said Deputy City Manager Dave Kiff. But he does not think that the new scrutiny of such runoff is unreasonable.

“We’ve got to have clean beaches in order to stay prosperous,” Kiff said.

In San Diego, some storm drains empty onto the beach alongside two state-listed marine areas. The city hopes to curb runoff problems with a new system that diverts urban runoff to sewer lines during dry summer months.

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The Los Angeles regional water board has gone even further, requiring major new developments to collect or filter storm water runoff. But the Los Angeles board has not taken steps to ban storm water runoff into the state-listed marine area off the coast of the Los Angeles-Ventura county line.

“What came out of Crystal Cove is, ‘Should that prohibition be extended to [state-listed areas]?’ ” said Xavier Swamikannu, head of the Los Angeles board’s storm-water unit. “Nobody contemplated that the prohibition relates to storm water.”

He and regulators at other regional boards say they are looking to Sacramento for guidance. Art Coe, assistant executive officer at the San Diego board, said: “It’s an issue the state board is going to have to resolve on a statewide basis.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Coastal Controversy

Coastal activists worry that state officials may weaken protection for 34 areas along the California coast ranked as “areas of special biological significance.” The area’s marine life has merited special efforts to protect water quality.

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1. Redwood National Park

2. Kelp beds at Trinidad Head

3. Kings Range National Conservation Area

4. Pygmy Forest Ecological Staircase

5. Kelp beds at Saunders Reef

6. Del Mar Landing Ecological Reserve

7. Gerstle Cove

8. Bodega Marine Life Refuge

9. Bird Rock

10. Double Point

11. Point Reyes Headland Reserve and Extension

12. Duxbury Reef Reserve and Extension

13. Farallon Islands

14. James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

15. Ano Nuevo Point and Island

16. Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Fish and Hopkins Marine Life refuges

17. Carmel Bay

18. Point Lobos Ecological Reserve

19. Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Park

20. Ocean area around the mouth of Salmon Creek

21. San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz islands

22. Mugu Lagoon to Latigo Point

23. Santa Barbara and Anacapa islands, Santa Barbara County

24. San Nicolas Island and Begg Rock

25. Catalina Island - Isthmus Cove to Catalina Head

26. Catalina Island - North End of Little Harbor to Ben Weston Point

27. Catalina Island - Farnsworth Bank Ecological Reserve

28. Catalina Island - Binnacle Rock to Jewfish Point

29. Newport Beach Marine Life Refuge

30. Irvine Coast Marine Life Refuge

34. San Diego Marine Life Refuge

31. Heisler Park Ecological Reserve

32. San Clemente Island

33. San Diego - La Jolla Ecological Reserve

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Source: State Water Resources Control Board

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