Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ventura Stormwater Hearing

Thursday May 7, 2009

Pure theater.

A crowd packed the Board of Supervisors hearing room today as the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) heard testimony and comments on a long overdue 'stormwater permit.' At stake is how runoff from our homes, businesses, streets and parking lots will be regulated over the next 5 years.

Following an opening presentation by RWQCB staff, the 'permittees' (local government) and NGO's (NRDC and Heal the Bay) presented their case for a 'deal' they had brokered amongst themselves. The agreement basically would modify the permit to require 'Low Impact Development' (LID) for new development in exchange for the elimination of 'Municipal Action Levels' (MALs). Ventura City Manager, Rick Cole, pitched a good angle on this 'cooperative agreement.'

Ventura County presented their current stormwater program, and the expected fiscal impacts of increased monitoring, with the overriding message that they are award winning leaders in watershed management. "Second to none," said Jeff Pratt, director of Public Works.

Then, in a surprise move, the NRDC petitioned the board to allow an opportunity to 'cross examine' RWQCB senior staff, Sam Unger. NRDC lawyer, David Beckman, proceeded to expose the fact that Mr Unger was unfamiliar with other permits around the country, and was biased against requiring infiltration and filtration techniques to control pollution. The remainder of NRDC testimony clearly highlighted the loopholes and weaknesses of the LID provisions in the Tentative Draft permit. Heal the Bay also had time to highlight the lack of details in the monitoring requirements and alternative regional solutions, among other issues.

Over the past 3 years, several workshops have been held in Ventura County to discuss this permit, often touted as a precedent for a 'next generation' regulations. While the municipalities and building industry have consistently cited economic reasons against more stringent requirements, my message has remained the same: new development is only one part of the problem. Existing infrastructure is a root cause of the current poor water quality. Moreover, existing development has also increased flooding, which in turn has resulted in increased flood control. And for the most part, 'flood control' has meant turning the natural waterways into concrete channels that convey even the lowest flows directly to the creeks and ocean.

My turn to speak finally came up shortly before 5pm. My testimony (paraphrased):

Good afternoon members of the board. I'm sure some of you saw the recent PBS documentary titled 'Poisoned Waters.' This TV show documented how we have completely failed to protect water quality over the past 40 years. I am afraid that this permit will not solve our problems. It is a small step in the right direction, but misses some critical pieces.
Did you all read this permit? It's huge. And it's very hard to understand. This document is unclear and needs more work, so we do not support the permit as currently written.
In "stormwater" we really are talking about two problems within the bigger picture of water management. The existing built environment and future development. The LID requirements are the bare minimum to address future development. Local government claims to be 'stewards' of our water resources, yet they continue to permit bad development. Because all CEQA documents use the RWQCB requirements, this has to become the minimum legal requirement to ensure we don't make the existing problem worse.

Did you know that 80% of the impervious area in our watershed is transportation related? There must be hundreds of acres of impervious parking lots constructed since the stormwater
permit started in 1992. So while LID would be required of developers, the cities and county are not held to the same standards. They need to be required to install BMPs to treat low flows when streets or storm drains are maintained.
The city of Ventura has a proposal to begin to do this, and Surfrider is working with them. But there needs to be funding for this type of project. For instance SEP (supplemental environmental project) money should be applicable to planning this type of retrofit.
Thank you.

After 11 hours of presentations and testimony, the board passed the new permit, with the 'city/NGO deal'. So we get LID requiremtne for new development, but the municipalities are off the hook forthe existing problems (for now.) This headline is unfortunate, as the 'taxpayers' are also subsidizing the bad practices that create stormwater pollution (i.e. flood control.) The irony is that while a change in actual water management would save the taxpayer, the municipalities have invested the majority of their staff time for four years working to de-fuse the permit. Imagine the projects that would be 'shovel ready' if that kind of energy would have gone into solving the problem.