July 23, 2008

Water Dispute Halts Projects

By Samantha Gonzaga

The state's Water Resources Control Board has halted all new water-related construction in the Los Angeles Basin after an Orange County judge ordered the suspension of urban runoff quality standards.

It's the latest development in a years-long dispute involving the 2005 Basin Plan, a set of stormwater standards and guidelines for the disposal of waste water.

About 21 cities and the nonprofit legal group Building Industry Legal Defense Foundation filed a lawsuit against the state and the Los Angeles Regional water boards, arguing that the standards were not achievable, lacked "sound science" and would be too costly for cities.

Richard Montevideo, the attorney representing the cities - among them Bellflower, Cerritos, Downey, Paramount and Signal Hill - said the construction moratorium was a result of the water authorities "intentionally over-reading the breadth" of the ruling.

"By doing that, they are going nuclear," he said. "It's just unfair that they would take such a misinterpretation of it for some odd reason to wreak havoc in the regulations community."

The State Water Resources Control Board and Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board have 90 days to respond to the writ, said Signal Hill Councilman Larry Forester. Forester is also spokesman for the Coalition for Practical Regulation, an ad hoc committee of 39 cities.

"We need to recognize that all levels of government - local, state and federal - have limited financial resources," he said.

A call to the state board seeking comment was not returned.

In a July 16 memo, State Water Resources Control Board chief counsel Michael Lauffer said the board can't continue permits for the discharges of construction and industrial stormwater within the Los Angeles region.

"The prohibition on processing enrollments will remain in effect only so long as the State Water Board remains subject to the prohibitory terms of the writ of mandate."

It will remain so until the water quality standards have been reviewed and revised "where appropriate," he wrote.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thierry Patrick Colaw on July 2 ordered the regional board to "void and set aside" the Basin Plan and to reopen and review water quality standards in the plan that applies to stormwater and urban runoff after "a full and fair public hearing or hearings."

Colaw also ordered that the standards be revised, where necessary, for water quality conditions that are achievable and takes into consideration their economic impact on "dischargers" like cities.

"In a perfect world, I'd love to stop all contaminants entering the storm drain," said Assistant City Manager Leo Mingle. "But it is possible from an engineering standpoint? No.

"Bellflower is a city with limited financial resources," he said. "Most of the things we've done already have been considerable. The cost implications (of the Basin Plan regulations) are completely unknown and that to me as a manager is frightening."

Bellflower already practices several measures to battle stormwater pollution, Mingle said.

They range from "aggressive" enforcement of stormwater permits for construction taking place in the city, to weekly sweeping of the city streets, to screens designed to intercept trash before it hits the catch basin.

Forester said his city's program dealing with stormwater runoff will continue. Included in the efforts is $900,000 in state funding invested in trash-collection devices at the Hamilton Bowl, a flood drainage basin, and a study on heavy metals such as copper, lead, zinc and chromium.

"Why are we still doing something? We have to," Forester said. "We want to be responsible, we want to use good science, but as importantly, we also want to use coordinated standards."

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