After a two-month investigation of the Foothill and Eastern tollway, state officials have identified sections of the Orange County highway they say pose a threat to local water quality.
But at the same time, water officials said there is no evidence that Caltrans violated environmental laws designed to reduce pollution from storm water runoff.
The findings of the Santa Ana and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control boards effectively clear Caltrans of allegations made in early August by Michael Hazzard, an environmental activist from south Orange County.
But board officials concluded earlier this month that risks to Orange County's water quality exist along the toll roads' on- and offramps, where drains to contain contaminated runoff are inadequate by today's standards.
"I don't see this as a violation case," said Robert W. Whitaker, the storm water coordinator for the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. "But we have found some potential threats to water quality. We want Caltrans to address this. They have a responsibility to meet new problems."
Caltrans, which maintains the 241 toll road, has until Nov. 2 to respond to the water board's findings. Beth Beeman, a spokeswoman for the agency, on Monday would say only that "Caltrans is committed to preserving and protecting the environment."
The investigation began in early August after Hazzard filed a complaint, charging that Caltrans allows storm water runoff to pollute tributaries of environmentally fragile Newport Bay. He also said runoff from the highway, which runs through eastern Orange County from the 261 tollway to Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo, was severely eroding creek beds beneath several of the route's bridges.
Highway runoff is often contaminated with oil, grease, toxic chemicals and metallic waste that can pollute watersheds and harm aquatic life. State regulations, which have become more stringent in the last decade, require Caltrans and other agencies to control runoff to the "maximum extent possible."
Water board officials said Caltrans and the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, which built the highway, are already addressing some of Hazzard's concerns.
Replanting and recontouring are underway at some of the eroded areas, and the remainder will be repaired during future road construction, they said. Deteriorated sandbags that used to keep sediment out of median drains also are being replaced.
But authorities said that drains on the outside of the roadway near on- and offramps do not appear to meet the latest "best management practices" as required by storm water regulations. Those rules, however, were not in effect when the toll roads were built.
But Whitaker said Monday that the water board wants Caltrans to address the issue because studies have shown high levels of contaminants coming from on- and offramps.
James D. Brown, director of engineering and environmental planning for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the authority and Caltrans complied with all storm water requirements that existed when the road was built.
"Now it appears, the water board is raising the bar and requesting that Caltrans deal with new requirements," Brown said.
Hazzard applauded state officials for addressing his complaint quickly, but he said Caltrans is receiving little more than a wrist slap for years of neglect.
Caltrans "says they are doing the best they can, and I say they are not," Hazzard said.
The state review of the Foothill and Eastern tollways is the second investigation into runoff problems on county toll roads this year. Caltrans--under pressure from state water quality regulators--agreed earlier this year to spend at least $13.5 million to repair or replace drains along the San Joaquin Hills tollway.