An upscale housing construction site is not the only source of illegal discharges into the fragile marine ecosystem off Crystal Cove State Park, a regional water agency's staff said Tuesday--an elementary school, a road and historic cottages also are culprits.
The staff of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board recommended that the board issue a cease-and-desist order against the Irvine Co., the California Department of Transportation, the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the Laguna Beach Unified School District.
The ocean off Crystal Cove, a dolphin birthing ground, is recognized by the state as one of 34 areas of biological significance and receives special protection under the state's Ocean Plan. Tuesday's draft order marks the first time a regional board has taken on the issue of storm-water discharge into those ecosystems.
"The idea of having a prohibition on discharges of waste was to protect the sensitive nature" of protected areas, said Gerard Thibeault, the board's executive officer. "Part of that finding was that no alteration of natural water quality was appropriate . . . and all discharges should be prohibited."
The regional board first learned of discharges in late August from Orange County Coast Keeper and the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove.
Alliance President Laura Davick said Tuesday, "This order will ensure that this precious resource will be protected."
The state Department of Parks and Recreation owns beach frontage that houses 46 cottages, some dating back 80 years, which use septic tanks that could be sending raw waste in storm water to the ocean. The department also owns parking lots, showers and other facilities that generate discharges that would have to be eliminated by late 2002.
Mike Tope, a district superintendent for state parks, said the department needs to work with the regional board to clarify its concerns. "We certainly support making sure biologically sensitive areas are being protected. If we're doing something that might be impacting [the ocean], we're going to fix it," he said.
Putting the cottages on a municipal sewer service would cost up to $6 million, a move scheduled when the department goes forward with plans to build a resort there. But that project has yet to clear required public reviews.
Davick, who lives in one of the historic cottages, said she is meeting with state parks officials Monday to discuss alternatives, such as building a treatment plant.
The draft order also would require Caltrans to stop Coast Highway runoff from reaching the ocean. Attempts to reach Caltrans officials for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
In addition, it would require Laguna Beach Unified's El Morro Elementary School to stop storm water from draining to Coast Highway and on to the ocean. A planned expansion of the school would also have to comply with the order.
School district officials familiar with the water agency staff's recommendation could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Irvine Co.'s 635-home project above Crystal Cove drained into two pipes and a culvert that sent construction runoff into the Los Trancos Canyon and Muddy Canyon creeks, which flow into the ocean. The company has agreed to comply with the order, which the board could adopt at its Nov. 16 meeting in Irvine.
The developer has proposed a water-quality package that would divert some runoff into a sewer system and place filters in catch basins, among other measures.
The order, if adopted, would require existing construction discharges to be eliminated by November 2001. Discharges from upcoming construction would be forbidden if the work begins after Nov. 16.
The regional water board asked its parent agency, the State Water Resources Board, to clarify two points: whether storm-water discharge from pipes is considered direct discharge and whether the Ocean Plan prohibition against discharge applies to storm water and urban runoff.
Thibeault said the regional board would back off the cease and-desist order if the state board plans to clarify those issues soon. But Craig Wilson, chief counsel for the state board, said the agency has no such plans.
"It's more appropriate for it to be considered initially at the regional board level," he said, adding that the state board would review the order if it were appealed--and "I wouldn't be surprised if it was appealed."
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