Victory in Ventura!

Ventura's new progressive stormwater permit bodes well for local wetlands

Ventura's new progressive stormwater permit bodes well for local wetlands and rivers

After a grueling and tense 12-hour hearing, the Southern California Regional Water Board last night approved a new stormwater permit for Ventura County on a 5-1 vote.  The permit follows over two years of contentious debate involving Ventura County, its muncipalities, the Building Industry Assn., the environmental community and the Regional Board.

Over the last year, Ventura County and all 11 of its cities negotiated a far-reaching agreement with Heal the Bay and the NRDC. The six-page pact was incorporated in to the permit during the board vote despite the strong opposition from Regional Board staff.  Here are the highlights:

  • Very innovative Low Impact Development requirements that apply to all significant new development and redevelopment. The crux of the requirement is that approximately 95% of the rain from a three-quarter inch storm must be captured and used or infiltrated on site.  In the event that infiltration or capture and storage isn’t feasible on site, then the developer must mitigate the runoff by giving funds to local government for regional infiltration projects like green streets, parking lot retrofits and stormwater recharge at parks, right of ways or open space.
  • A requirement that all new structural devices (Best Management Practices or BMPs) must meet minimum design performance criteria for treating polluted runoff. Believe it or not, for the past 19 years, there have been no requirements for these treatment devices to perform at a certain level.  The end result has been haphazard installation of these BMPs with no direct scientific or engineering relationship to meeting water quality standards or even improving water quality.  That has all changed and this is the first permit in the country to do so.  This was a principal focus of Heal the Bay.
  • Designated funding for year-round monitoring at 10 beaches in Ventura County. Until the budget crisis devastated California’s beach monitoring programs, Ventura County monitored over 50 beaches on a weekly basis.  Officials eliminated their program when state funding stopped.  With the inclusion of mandatory monitoring at Ventura County’s most stormdrain pollution-impacted beaches, the public health of swimmers and surfers will be better protected.

Much to our surprise, Regional Board staff started the hearing with strong opposition to the agreement.  Normally, they would have compared the language in the draft permit with agreement posed by the cities and the enviros.  Instead, staff decided to rip apart our proposal, even going so far as stating that it would threaten public health and aquatic life.  Although Regional Board staff stated that capturing or infiltrating runoff on site could lead to mosquito problems, I took some solace that they didn’t claim retaining runoff would somehow spawn the next swine flu pandemic.

After the surprise volley by Regional Board staff, Rick Cole and Mike Sedell (city managers of Ventura and Simi Valley respectively), David Beckman from NRDC and I testified on the merits of our proposal and on the importance of keeping the entire agreement together to ensure agreement support by all parties.  Then Ventura County officials presented their concerns and support for the permit.

After the morning attack, NRDC and Heal the Bay had no choice but to take the gloves off.  NRDC’s Beckman, perhaps the best water quality attorney in the state, cross examined water board staff on some of the “factual” statements made earlier.  This action set the tone for the rest of the hearing.  The environmental community did not accept inaccurate information and unsubstantiated opinions on the technical weakness in the permit.

The rest of the long afternoon was filled with testimony from the other speakers, including the Surfrider Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper and the Southern California Watershed Alliance. The Building Industry Association and its paid experts closed the day’s testimony by stating how the agreement would lead to the end of development as we know it because of high costs.  Again, no data were brought up to back up the claims.

In addition, the BIA actually made a pitch that the enviro-municipality agreement would somehow jeopardize aquatic life and public health, perhaps even mobilizing a host of toxic metals like selenium in the groundwater because of increased stormwater filtration.  Shades of Kesterson in the late 1980s! I guess paving all parcels from lot line to lot line is the best way to save the environment.

After all of this testimony and another half hour of rebuttal, the decision came down to the Regional Board. After about two hours of discussion and questioning of the witnesses, the board decided to incorporate the precedent-setting agreement into the permit.

Board member Maribel Marin distinguished herself leading the board to the appropriate decision.  Perhaps she said it best about the complex permit negotiations and hearing process: “It was a sausage, but at the end of the day we got a good meal!”

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