Regional water filtration project in doubt

Editor's note: This corrects the cost of the regional project to filter selenium.

City and county officials have hit some setbacks in an ambitious effort to reduce the amount of selenium, a naturally occurring yet potentially toxic element, that enters Upper Newport Bay.

Because of regulatory hurdles and strained city budgets, a $22-million regional project to filter selenium from creeks and tributaries is now in doubt.

Scientists have detected the element in bird eggs and fish tissue taken from the Newport Bay Watershed, an area that spans from Orange Hills to Laguna Woods. If enough selenium accumulates in an animal, it can harm reproduction and, in extreme cases, cause embryonic deformities.

But no deformities have been found in this area — a factor cited by Newport Beach and Costa Mesa officials, and others, when they warily eye the project's price tag. Newport's cost would be between $250,000 and $1.5 million, according to city officials.

"It's too soon to make that kind of commitment because we don't like the science," said Councilwoman Nancy Gardner at a study session last week. "We have a lot of questions."

The project, dubbed "Cienega," would be a mostly below-ground filtration system housed in Irvine, near the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Barranca Parkway. It would filter water running through the Peter Canyon Channel, using microorganisms to biologically remove dissolved selenium.

The Irvine Ranch Water District, which has been leading the project, secured a $5.5-million federal grant to build the facility and sought to have other agencies and governments fund the remainder.

The Newport Beach City Council last week indicated that it would not support the project now, and Costa Mesa's may be even more reluctant.

"It's ridiculous that the federal government is holding cities responsible for this environmental issue," said Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece. "Costa Mesa cannot afford to comply."

Even the IRWD, which has completed a successful pilot program, admits that it faces large obstacles.

IRWD spokeswoman Shannon Reed said Environmental Protection Agency regulators have indicated that they'd be reluctant to approve a regional selenium removal program.

Still, some environmentalists support the Cienega program. Others are also deterred by its cost.

"The Cienega project seems to be the best thing out there right now," said Raymond Hiemstra, associate director of programs at OC Coastkeeper in Costa Mesa. "We know the technology, and we know it's going to work."

On the other hand, Jack Skinner, a respected local environmental activist, said, "I changed sides on this issue when I saw the price tag."

Local officials are also concerned that if they invest in the program, EPA and local water quality regulators may still demand they take other actions to clean up the metal.

"We'd like a little more assurance," said David Webb, deputy public works director of Newport Beach.

But federal regulators will ultimately force local governments to take some action — whether or not in a regional partnership, officials say. Those deadlines could come between three and five years from now, according to Amanda Carr, Orange County chief of water quality planning.

If cities don't comply they could face fines of $10,000 per day.

The hope is to avert the type of selenium disaster that befell the Central Valley's Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the 1980s. Some birds there developed with eyes missing and beaks twisted.

Because of such risks, the federal government has stringent water quality standards. Generally, selenium is restricted to below 5 parts per billion in fresh surface waters.

Compare that to Newport's Big Canyon, where selenium has been measured in quantities as high as 100 parts per billion, according to city officials.

Another "hot spot" is near the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, just upstream of the proposed Cienega treatment plant.

The IRWD Board of Directors was scheduled to meet Monday evening to discuss the fate of the Cienega project.

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