July 8, 2008

State Water Panel Cancels Workshop

By Kevin Clerici, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 8--State water regulators Monday abruptly canceled a public workshop planned for this week in Ventura, temporarily silencing dozens of local officials who had prepared for weeks to argue against tough new storm-water rules for Ventura County.

Thursday's workshop before the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board was canceled because of a legal ruling last week involving the board, according to a brief notice sent Monday to local officials. A board spokesman declined to comment, saying the ruling was still being reviewed by legal counsel. Another workshop has not been scheduled.

The appointed water board can be addressed only at workshops and public hearings under state law, and Thursday's workshop would have offered a rare opportunity for local officials to speak face to face with it. Local officials say the proposed new storm-water rules are unworkable, counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible, possibly costing local communities as much as $1 billion over the next five years. That equates to as much as $600 per household per year.

"We have been prepping for weeks," Jeff Pratt, director of the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, said of the workshop. "This throws a wrench into everything."

Mounting a rare united front, leaders of the county and its 10 cities, as well as business and building industry advocates, had planned to urge water regulators Thursday to consider alternatives and practical approaches to mutually shared goals of reducing trash, bacteria and other pollutants carried by storm runoff into the ocean and other waterways.

"All 10 cities and the county of Ventura are disappointed," Thousand Oaks City Manager Scott Mitnick, who chairs a countywide storm-water task force, said in a prepared statement. "But (we) hope that this will chart a different course as we move forward in collaborating on a revised storm-water permit that addresses the significant issues and concerns raised by all 11 local governments."

Workshop billed as showdown'

Local leaders and public works officials said they have wrestled with water board staff members -- the authors of the new regulations -- for months with virtually no movement. They viewed Thursday's workshop as a near last-ditch opportunity to try to persuade the board to favor more reasonable alternatives. Some had even billed the workshop as a "showdown."

The proposed rules, for the first time, would establish strict limits on the quantity of pollutants allowed into lakes, rivers and the ocean and levy steep fines against those who don't comply.

Local officials say the potential financial burden is "staggering," and they would have few options for recovering any of the increased costs. The county and cities collectively spend about $13.5 million a year on storm-water programs, part of which is offset by a small countywide fee levied on property owners.

Increasing that fee would require voter approval, and local officials believe it would be difficult to persuade residents to possibly shell out as much as $600 from already-strapped pocketbooks.

"We all share mutual water quality goals," county Supervisor Kathy Long said. "But we want a permit we can all live with and work with."

The legal ruling at issue involves a decision last week by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thierry Patrick Colaw that the regional water board didn't consider appropriate factors, in particular the economic impacts, when it adopted water quality standards for the Los Angeles region, which includes Los Angeles and Ventura counties, officials said.

The ruling calls into question how certain provisions affecting Ventura County could play out, said Tess Dunham, a Sacramento-based attorney who specializes in water quality issues and is special council to the county and Watershed Protection District.

Ruling's effect uncertain

The ruling puts everything on hold, but for how long is unclear. "It's on hold until the state figures out what it is going to do," she said.

It could open the door to more discussion and reasonable, cost-effective compromise, said Andrew Henderson, general counsel to the Building Industry Association of Southern California.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead of us, but it can be more fruitful work than we have done before," he said. "We are all eager to help."

State regulators and environmentalists say the persistence of pollution in the waters off Ventura County beaches calls for more stringent measures.

Urban storm runoff was among the last major sources of contamination to be regulated in the United States under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which initially focused on large, easily identifiable sources of pollution such as factories and municipal sewage treatment plants.

Only recently have federal water-quality regulators begun grappling with the much more difficult issue of controlling pollution from diffuse sources such as farm fields and urban storm drains, which typically do not feed into sewage plants.

A new storm-water permit for Ventura County, expected to be adopted early next year by the water board, could potentially set numeric limits on the allowable amount of bacteria, heavy metals, nutrients and other pollutants in runoff. Violations could lead to fines of up to $27,500 a day. Ventura County would be the first jurisdiction in California -- and possibly the nation -- to face numeric limits on storm-water pollution.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Ventura County Star, Calif.

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