In South Orange County’s native coastal sage and oak woodland environment, the rivers and streams serve as the fount of life for a thriving biodiversity hot spot. These same valleys and gently rolling hills have also proven superb human habitat. After 45 years of growth and development, the streams have often been reduced to toxic drainage ditches that foul our world-class beaches and waves and have turned Aliso Beach and Doheny State Beach into notorious dangers to human and aquatic health, affecting tourism, fisheries and quality of life for our outdoor-loving sun-seekers.
Sadly, the chronic dumping or unmitigated draining of untreated human waste and chemicals or other hazardous materials from roadways, industry, and landscaping into rivers and oceans is constant. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fewer than one in five sewage systems that break water quality laws are ever fined or sanctioned. A study published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health estimated that 4 million people in California are sickened each year from surfing, bathing, walking or ingesting waters polluted with untreated sewage.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 endeavored to improve this situation, with subsequent new regulations approved in 1987. Yet, the broad generic terms and lack of specificity did not lead to protection of watersheds. Moreover, the massive push toward development that recontoured natural slopes and paved significant portions of the land created a series of engineered drainage canals designed for quick runoff into the ocean. Destroyed were the life-supporting pools and riffles that once recharged aquifers and filtered storm flows. Steelhead trout, waterfowl and migratory birds, and many aquatic species no longer had a home.
Unfortunately, the urbanization of our arid Mediterranean-desert climate, transformed into a pseudo-tropical garden, has led to significant non-storm year-round polluted runoff. This erodes stream banks, inundates native plant species and wastes a valuable commodity that could be stored and recycled. It also renders one of the most recreationally important habitats a smelly, trash-filled engineering project instead of a place for a picnic.
The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board is in the process of an important watershed-focused revision of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for municipal separate storm-water sewer systems (MS4) affecting South Orange County.
The permitting regime focuses on a measurable outcome of controlling runoff levels at the source, requiring low-impact development and landscape irrigation controls for new and existing development while taking a watershed-level approach, instead of an unaccountable city-by-city implementation.
Results are mandated with implementation flexibility: clean streams and beaches with manageable flow levels; urban areas covered with rain gardens, green roofs or retention walls, parking lots of permeable pavers; and bioswales and bioretention cells capturing runoff before it flows into pristine riparian and marine habitats.
Our county and municipal politicians and officials have unfortunately taken an adversarial approach to the approval of these regulations, and have threatened legal action against the regional board.
They claim hardship on the basis of the cost of implementation, difficulty managing regulatory differences for watersheds north of El Toro Road, and their concern that “Numeric" Effluent Levels are more difficult to achieve than “Narrative" Levels, specifically that non-compliance would require mandatory minimum penalties. Not a principled stance for those who claim to care about our environmental future.
Our county and cities did not require responsible development upfront, resulting in massive pollution and degradation of our vital aquatic resources and environmentally sensitive areas. We must invest today in a sustainable water quality regime to avoid far more significant costs when our state water supplies run low, our aquifers are tapped out, our oceans polluted.
We must protect our tourism-dependent coasts and restore the utility of our watersheds in order to embrace a sustainable water system given the challenges of extended drought and protracted climate change already well underway.
It is in all of our interests to support the State Regional Water Board in their approval and implementation of the renewal of the NPDES permit for the MS4.
JACK EIDT is director of Wild Heritage Planners in San Juan Capistrano.