Pointless pollution

by Carolyn Chase


More than 70% of California's waters are not healthy enough to support swimming, fishing or wildlife designated uses. Polluted runoff is considered by the state to be the leading cause of receiving water quality impairment.

      Runoff is the number one contributor of pollution to streams, lakes, marine waters, groundwater basins, wetlands and estuaries in California, and is an important contributor of pollution to harbors and bays. It is a major cause of California beach closures and warnings, which have increased 200% over the past two years - far more than any other state. In 1996, polluted runoff contributed to 100% of beach closures and shellfish closures in the state.

      Technically called, "nonpoint source pollution," according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), approximately 440,000 acres of surface water are affected by urban runoff in California.

      California includes more than 1600 miles of shoreline and 645,000 acres of estuaries, harbors and bays. Our coasts are a source of food, recreation and energy resources. Several industries are totally dependent on a healthy ocean, including commercial fishing, mariculture, kelp harvesting, coastal tourism and recreation. Additionally, the appeal of the coast has resulted in a rapidly increasing coastal population, with more than 80% of California's population residing within 30 miles of the coast. This results in increasing stress on coastal resources.

      Nonpoint (as opposed to those pollutants from specific, or point, sources) refers to the range of pollutants from diverse points and sources that flow into water bodies off the land. Anything that goes into a storm drain or canyon in San Diego is washed toward local beaches and bays.

      A report released by the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), entitled "Mission Possible," has analyzed California's progress controlling runoff under its "Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program" and looked at the effects of federal funding.

      Focusing on five case studies, the report, written by the Coast Alliance, concludes that federal funding is helping to limit polluted runoff, but that many states need more money and better direction in using those funds. The analysis also identifies innovative approaches to solving runoff problems, as well as obstacles encountered by states in doing so.

      California appears to have sufficient regulatory authority to address nonpoint pollution. But the existing authorities and resources have not yet been effectively employed to do so. Since 1968, the state has had the authority - through the Water Quality Act of California - to regulate all discharges that impair water quality, including nonpoint source discharges. However, such regulation has not been applied adequately to address polluted runoff problems.

      The Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program, enacted by Congress in 1990, is predicated on federal funding for states to control polluted runoff. Twenty-nine of the 35 coastal states and territories are developing plans to address runoff, including three states - Maryland, Rhode Island and California - whose plans are approved and ready to go. However, in spite of promising bills in both the House and Senate, this Congress has so far failed to designate funding for the program as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) reauthorization.

      Led by Congressman Jim Saxton (R-NJ) and Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and John Kerry (D-MA), both the House and Senate are considering bills to reauthorize the CZMA and provide funding for this program. While the Senate bill passed out of committee unanimously and is headed to the floor, the House bill is mired in anti-environmental amendments that could cause its demise.

      According to Jacqueline Savitz, executive director of Coast Alliance, "A relatively small amount of funding would go a long way toward ending the fish and shellfish contamination, algae blooms, 'Dead Zones' and beach closures that have become so common all around America's coasts."

      "Without adequate funding for the program, we will continue to experience more beach closures from polluted runoff," said Donna Frye, San Diego Pollution Program Manager for CMC. "Congress should reauthorize the Coastal Zone Management Act with designated funding for the Coastal Nonpoint Program to help fix the problems on our coast. Investing in pollution prevention today makes good economic sense, and will result in cleaner, safer beaches and bays. "

      In the meantime, Frye could be found downtown again last week lecturing city officials on how to implement pollution prevention during it's hearing over a 50-year extension of the Hilton Hotel's lease on Mission Bay.

      "For too long, the city has failed to protect the natural resources of Mission Bay. Almost every day, one or more areas of Mission Bay is posted with signs warning of unsafe levels of bacteria. Mission Bay does not support its beneficial uses and is listed as an impaired water body due to coliform bacteria. This problem can no longer be ignored. It is time to enforce the San Diego Municipal Code and require best management practices (BMPs) that actually prevent and reduce the discharge of pollutants directly or indirectly to Mission Bay. The BMP language in the lease fails to require specific pollution prevention measures, source reduction and toxics use reduction. There is no requirement for the lessee to provide reports to the city. The BMPs in the lease provisions are too vague to be effective and some border on the absurd.

      "The issuance of this lease is not time sensitive and it does not appear that requiring an effective BMP program to be formulated before the 50-year lease is approved is unreasonable."

      The lease was approved and thanks to Frye, it was included that the Hilton has 6 months to prepare BMPs and they be reviewed annually by the city. When will cities learn to do this on their own?

      "San Diego's economy is heavily dependent upon the health of our coast," said Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of San Diego BayKeeper. "But you can't have a sound coastal economy when polluted runoff threatens clean and safe beaches, and visitors see warning signs posted at places such as Mission Bay and La Jolla."

      Help get our federal dollars back to San Diego for much needed funding. Call members of Congress and ask them to reauthorize the Coastal Zone Management Act and include a provision to fund the Coastal Nonpoint Program.

      Copies of the report are available from: COAST ALLIANCE; (202) 546-9554; www.coastalliance.org.