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Crystal-Clear Water Standards

[Reproduced from a Los Angeles Times editorial 11-5-2000]

Crystal Cove is one of Orange County's special meeting places of land, sea and sky. This coastal expanse has been the focus of another kind of convergence in recent years, a place where competing interests intersect on land use and environmental protection.

Here we have seen battles over the future of historical bungalows,for years providing summer getaways for generations who came when Orange County's shoreline was primarily a summer destination. A battle also took place over resort plans, raising questions about how ironclad the promise to future generations would be of keeping a state park free of development and political interference. Now runoff from nearby development has pitted environmentalists against builders and public agencies taking advantage of some of the most desirable land along the California coast.

The offshore has its own magical quality as a dolphin birthing ground. It was designated as one of 34 areas of biological significance to receive special protection under the state's Ocean Plan. Late last month, the staff of 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 Depart ment of Parks and Recreation and the Laguna Beach Unified School District. In taking this hard line, it has recognized the cumulative effects of runoff from many sources.

Caltrans has runoff from Coast Highway; the state parks department has sewage from cottages and runoff from parking lots and showers; and Laguna Beach's El Morro Elementary School has storm water draining at the location. The Irvine Co., with new housing in the area, has said that it will comply with the order and has a proposal to divert and filter runoff.

The categorical finding of the board's executive officer that "no alteration of natural water qualitv was appropriate" sends a clear message that interested parties along the waterfront have a responsibility to preserve the environment. This high standard recognizes what is at stake. In bringing discharges to light, monitoring groups such as Orange County CoastKeeper and the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove have shown that they are important long-term players in environmental protection.

Since a tough standard is being set, this would be a good time to work with cooperative parties to clarify questions about such basic things as what constitutes runoff. The regional board clearly wants to draw a firm line on protecting water quality. And it is doing so as awareness increases about the impact of upstream pollution sources along the entire Orange County coastline.

It's good the regional board is being firm, but if affected public agencies and private interests in Orange County are going to know how to proceed, they need the clearest possible standards from the top. The Crystal Cove situation offers a chance for the state Water Resources Control Board, the parent of regional boards, to demonstrate that its decisions will not be influenced by politics and that it will make clean-water standards clear enough for all to follow.


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