IRVINE -- Runoff from an Irvine Co. construction site must stop flowing into Crystal Cove within a year, state water regulators decided Thursday, and from state parks property and a state highway within two years - a potentially precedent-setting decision that could inspire activists elsewhere on the California coast to seek similar orders.
The order was a victory for environmental activists who pushed the board for tighter runoff regulations, saying increased development in the area is threatening the cove.
"This is the culmination of years of work," said Laura Davick of the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove who, along with others, kept close watch on releases of water and pushed the water board to act.
Representatives of the Irvine Co., which has been targeted by the activists because of its 650-home development in the hills above Crystal Cove, said they have already agreed to divert the site's runoff into two nearby creeks.
But they disagreed with the board's staff that urban runoff was meant to be included in the state's Ocean Plan, which forbids emptying waste water into "areas of special biological significance." Crystal Cove is one of 34 such areas statewide.
"Development is simply not placing the waters of (Crystal Cove) in harm's way," Irvine Co. attorney Paul Singarella told the board.
The water board gave the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the state Department of Transportation two years to obey the order. A potential trouble spot for the parks department are cottages on the beach; most are now leased, but state parks plans to refurbish them and turn them into a resort.
Sewage from the cottages is now collected in septic tanks buried beneath the sand. But though there is no evidence that any of the tanks are leaking, their presence on the beach means that, technically, they violate the Ocean Plan and the cease-and-desist order.
State parks officials plan to replace the tanks with a sewer system once they gain approval to turn the cottages into a resort. But there is some community opposition to the resort plan; whether such approval would come within the two-year time frame is unknown.
The state Department of Transportation also was uncertain whether it could develop a plan for diverting runoff within six months, as the order requires, and meet the two-year deadline, said spokeswoman Beth Beeman.
The agency will have to somehow prevent runoff from Pacific Coast Highway from reaching the ocean.
The activists' victory, meanwhile, could prompt other activists to seek cease-and-desist orders for runoff at some of the state's 33 other "areas of special biological significance."
Orange County has only one other such area, on the Newport Coast just northwest of Crystal Cove. But Garry Brown of the Orange County CoastKeeper, one of the groups that pushed for the cease- and-desist order, said he will wait for further developments before deciding whether to try for a similar order in Newport.
The board's decision could prompt action at the state level, meanwhile, that could ultimately nullify the cease-and- desist order - and any others like it that might be issued in the future.
Because of ambiguity in the ocean plan, the regional board had asked for advice from the state water board, but received no answer; imposing a cease- and-desist order based on a strict interpretation of the Ocean Plan, however, could force the state board to render an opinion.
If any of those ordered Thursday to divert their runoff were to appeal the order to the state board, the state board would then have to decide whether runoff should be considered "waste water."
The Ocean Plan says wastewater cannot be emptied into areas of special biological significance, although by some interpretations - including the Irvine Co.'s - that means industrial waste and sewage, not storm water and urban runoff.
If the state body decides runoff and storm water are not "waste water," the regional board's order would have no basis and would be overruled.
[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Orange County Register]
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