Upstream Cities Commit to Improving Water Quality

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In a step towards drying up runoff fouling swimming beaches in south-county, regional water regulators signed off on a water quality improvement plan two years in the making that involves 11 cities.

“It’s definitely a step forward because it puts more responsibility in the watershed instead of just on the edges,” said David Shissler, the water quality director for Laguna Beach, one of the participants,

Accepting the plan last month satisfies a storm sewer permit requirement of the San Diego Regional Water Control Board, which regulates runoff in south county and San Diego.

The plan establishes goals, strategies and schedules to address what are deemed high-priority water quality conditions: human health risks from disease-causing pathogens, stream erosion and dry weather runoff.

The immediate goal is for participating cities within the next year to devise plans to reduce dry weather runoff 10% compared with current levels by 2023.

The plan also identifies about four miles worth of streambed segments amid the 180-mile watershed in need of erosion control and sets an abatement target of 2042, according to the 299-page report.

“It’s a conservative goal,” said Grant Sharp, the county’s manager of south-county watersheds. “Until now, there’s not been an over-arching strategy.”

He said the plan allows for costly structural strategies but also behavior-changing ones. For instance, he cited Moulton Niguel Water District’s plan to nudge its water-guzzling customers to conserve with bill inserts. “It takes incentives to get people to opt in,” Sharp said.

Shissler praised the plan for giving local regulators a framework with direction to address water-quality, but also a toolbox that allows flexibility. “See if it works; if not, change it,” he said.

Rancho Santa Margarita, for example, plans to install inflatable dams in two streambeds to slow storm water and allow it to sink into the aquifer.

“If that were to happen, there would be a net water quality benefit; less runoff to Doheny,” Sharp said.

Such a plan couldn’t work downstream on Aliso Creek where it crosses the Aliso Wood Canyon Wilderness Park because diversions aren’t permitted within parks.

But further upstream, the 40-acre makeover of the Laguna Hills mall has potential to reduce runoff into Aliso Creek, which empties onto Aliso Beach. Redevelopment requires new controls to capture wet weather flows. “It will take a lot of redevelopment projects before we see the benefit,” Sharp said.

To combat upstream runoff, Laguna Beach more than a decade ago built 24 streambed structures, redirecting dry weather runoff into the city’s sewer system. The diversions annually capture 8 tons of “really nasty crud,” from cigarette butts to motor oil spilling from auto wrecks, Shissler said.

Of the 11 cities involved, each monitors dozens of water outfall spots, many now connected wirelessly. Laguna Beach has 33.

Though the data still can’t be analyzed in real time, it gives regulators a quick read on illicit discharges.

For Sharp, the new accord provides proof city leaders recognize the value in managing a resource changed by the built environment, which still adheres to topography rather than political boundaries.

“We know on our own we can’t be successful,” he said.

The South OC WQIPis available on the Water Board’s website.

 

 

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