Stricter Water Rules to Protect Swimmers Are Postponed

Times Staff Writer

State officials will miss a key deadline today to impose tougher enforcement of clean-water standards to protect swimmers and surfers at popular Santa Monica Bay beaches.

Staff at the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board this week decided to postpone taking action to ensure that bacterial contamination in urban runoff would not close any of the bay's 44 beaches for a single day during summer.

To comply with a federal consent decree stemming from lawsuits filed by environmentalists, the board was expected to adopt measures making it easier to impose fines and cleanup orders on the county and the 13 cities that ring the bay if they fail to meet new limits on fecal coliform discharged into storm drains between April and October. It will probably take up the issue again by summer's end.

Jonathan Bishop, the agency's executive officer, said although the regional board has had three years to meet the deadline, a last-minute flurry of public comments received just prior to Tuesday's board meeting necessitated a delay. Some cities are already diverting summertime runoff to prevent contamination from reaching beaches, but he acknowledged that more needs to be done to protect public health.

Environmentalists were outraged by the board's inaction, claiming that the agency folded under pressure from local governments, which must comply with the new limits.

"This refusal to act puts back on the shelf standards that would have protected millions of Los Angeles beachgoers this summer from exposure to bacteria and viruses that can make them sick," said David Beckman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of three plaintiffs in the suit.

"What's at stake here is implementing the heart of the Clean Water Act in Southern California," said Tracy Egoscue, executive director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper. "The water board has flinched in the face of [today's] deadline."

The decision comes at the height of the summer season, when millions of beachgoers flock to the nation's most popular beaches stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the Ventura County line. Pathogens flowing from storm drains to surf can cause skin rashes, earaches and gastrointestinal illness, among other health problems. The pollution comes from a wide range of sources, including lawn fertilizer and leaks from septic tanks and sewers.

The worst of the contamination occurs during winter when rains flush gunk into the sea. During summer, a few Santa Monica Bay beaches exceed bacteria pollution standards, including beaches around Santa Monica Pier, the beach south of Redondo Pier and Surfrider Beach near Malibu.

An annual beach water-quality report card issued in May by the environmental group Heal the Bay concluded that 85% of the state's beaches scored high marks for summer water quality, including beaches in Ventura County, the South Bay and Palos Verdes, from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach and from Newport Beach to San Clemente.

Cleaning up Southern California beaches has been particularly contentious as regulators move beyond controlling factories, power plants and wastewater treatment plants to tackle the myriad small, diffuse sources that cause most of today's pollution.

"This is the No. 1 water-quality issue we face in Southern California," said Alexis Strauss, water division director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's California office. "We have millions of people using these beaches year round, so we need to do everything we can to reduce the [runoff] flows."

Under the new regulatory paradigm, cities and counties must meet "total maximum daily loads," which are limits for a wide range of pollutants spread over dozens of watersheds. It is a complex and costly system, and many local governments say cleanup techniques don't always work.

"We don't have the money to implement these [regulations]," said Signal Hill City Manager Ken Farfsing, who heads the Coalition for Practical Regulation, a coalition of 43 Los Angeles County small cities. "There's a lot of unknowns in these storm-water capture devices. Sometimes we build stuff and it doesn't work."

But the water-quality control board disputes that. A staff report says that diverting flows in 27 major storm drains entering the Santa Monica Bay during summer would cost about $1.7 million annually, or $3.23 per household.

Disputes over water cleanup led to lawsuits and a federal consent decree was signed in 1999 that set in motion a process to set tough, enforceable discharge limits to take effect by today.

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