Regulations that require most new development to contain and treat stormwater runoff continue to advance at Regional Water Quality Control Boards for California's coastal urban areas. The regulations, however, have received mixed reviews from environmentalists and condemnation from the building industry.
In January 2000, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board became the first in the state to set quantifiable standards for treating stormwater runoff from most new developments (see CP&DR Environment Watch, March 2000). About 30 inland cities and the Building Industry Association of Southern California challenged the Standard Urban Storm Water Mitigation Plans (SUSWPs). But in October 2000, the State Water Resources Control Board defended the SUSWPs by adopting a "precedential decision." The regulations require developers to install filtering devices or create vegetated swales to slow runoff and to capture sediment and contaminants. Regulators said the standards would add only 1% to 2% to project costs; builders said the mandates could cost more and could require substantial redesign of projects. Cities questioned who would maintain stormwater facilities.
The nine regional boards were watching how the state board would handle the appeal, said state board spokesman Robert Miller. When the state board defended numeric targets for stormwater control, regional boards were in position to adopt similar regulatory approaches.
"The general movement is toward the numeric target and the SUSWPs," Miller said. "Anything that flows across a paved area, or that flows across construction sites, will eventually find its way to creek and rivers and oceans. … We've got pathogens in the beach water all up and down the state, and we have got to get a handle on them."
The nine regional boards have not approached the issue consistently, said Peter Hsiao, an attorney with Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles, a firm that often represents development interests. In agricultural areas, it is very difficult to get a handle on runoff, he said. But in urban areas, controlling runoff from parking lots and construction sites is "viewed as low-hanging fruit" by many regulators and environmentalists, Hsiao said.
"The issue in big urban areas like Los Angeles is really critical because the majority of contaminants are not coming from point-sources, they are coming from stormwater runoff," Hsiao said.
Congressional revisions to the Clean Water Act approved in 1987 placed a strong focus on cleaning up "non-point source" pollution, including urban runoff. ("Point sources" are things such as sewer plants and factory discharges.) Despite the revisions and growing concern among environmentalists regarding the effects of polluted and swift-moving stormwater runoff, most state regulatory bodies moved cautiously. But attention to the problem has grown in recent years — especially because the state now requires local public health officials to post warning notices when water bodies show signs of dangerous pollution. Last year, many popular beaches in Orange County were closed for extended periods, greatly angering coastal merchants. Lawmakers have also directed money toward studies and pollution prevention efforts, Miller said.
Under the SUSMP adopted by the Los Angeles regional board for Los Angeles County — and later extended to Ventura County — new developments must be designed to collect or filter runoff from the first 0.75 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. The regulations apply to commercial projects of more than 100,000 square feet, parking lots of at least 5,000 square feet, most gas stations, auto repair shops and restaurants, residential subdivisions with at least 10 units, and hillside homes. Developers usually can comply by building grassy swales, detention ponds or infiltration basins. The Los Angeles board is now considering revisions to the SUSWP, but no one anticipates a significant easing of requirements on developers.
In February of this year, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted regulations similar — but not identical — to the Los Angeles board's. The San Diego board requires developments to treat the first 0.6 inches of a storm. Residential developments of at least 10 units, commercial projects of at least 100,000 square feet, and parking lots of at least 50,000 square feet are covered. The San Diego board approved the regulations over the objection of many cities and the building industry.
The San Diego BIA, like its cousins elsewhere in the state, argued that the rules would have a negligible benefit because they do not address pollution from existing development, and that implementation would be costly. Now, similar arguments are being sounded at the Santa Ana and San Francisco Bay regional boards, which are considering their own stormwater runoff regulations.
Earlier this year, the Bay Area regional board adopted new stormwater regulations addressing everything except new development. The regional board continues to work on those rules, which would apply first to Santa Clara County. Alameda, Contra Costa and other counties in the region would then follow, said regional board spokesman Will Behrns. The San Francisco Bay board had scheduled adoption of regulations for Santa Clara County this month, but delayed a vote until October, at least partly because cities say the regulations would be too expensive to enforce.
Environmental organizations are not on board, either. The group WaterKeepers has urged the San Francisco Bay regional board to speed the pace of rule-making and to tighten its proposed regulations. WaterKeepers' Jonathan Kaplan called the proposed San Francisco Bay regional regulations regarding new development weaker than those adopted by the Los Angeles and San Diego boards.
Kaplan said the San Francisco Bay region's proposed definition of redevelopment that would be affected is unclear. He also complained that while the San Diego regional board tailored pollution control rules to the actual quality of water running off a new development site, the San Francisco Bay regional board would allow any "best management practice" for any pollutant.
Additionally, the San Diego regulations flatly say that new development shall maintain or reduce peak flows to prevent erosion. San Francisco Bay officials have proposed rules that take into account the waterway that receives the flows — an approach called a "hydromodification management plan." This makes sense "because many creeks in the County have been so hardened by previous flood control work that significant changes due to upstream projects will have little or no impact on sediment erosion," a staff report says.
Officials at the state Environmental Protection Agency appear satisfied to let the individual regional boards wrestle with the issues. The State Water Quality Control Board has adopted general guidelines but has no plans to impose strict statewide requirements, spokesman Miller said. Both environmentalists and developers seem satisfied with that decision.
Peter Hsiao, Morrison & Foerster, (213) 892-5731.
Jonathan Kaplan, WaterKeepers, (415) 561-2299.
San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board website: www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb2/
State Water Resources Control Board stormwater website: www.swrcb.ca.gov/stormwtr/index.html
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