Waive Goodbye

How inland cities killed sewage dumping

Photo by Jack GouldNobody's saying the 13-12 vote by the Orange County Sanitation District's (OCSD) board of directors was harmonious, not after 18 months of squabbling that culminated on July 17 before an overflow crowd at OCSD headquarters in Fountain Valley, with four hours of debate and a roll call that was tied at 10-10, at 11-11 and at 12-12.

But it's worth noting that the board's one-vote decision to surrender a loophole to the 1972 Clean Water Act—the 301 (h) waiver that permitted the OCSD to pollute the local ocean with substandard sewage for decades—reached across some of OC's deepest factional chasms. For once, the distinctions of North and South County, of inland and coastal cities, did not make the difference on this long, tense night.

"I loved breaking a tie on this kind of issue," said Paul Walker, mayor of small, land-locked, North County La Palma, who cast the final and decisive vote. "It really illustrated that the cities of this county can think beyond their own borders."

Drawing that kind of picture isn't enough to break through everybody's long-standing perceptions, however. Times columnist Dana Parson's account of the vote emphasized that every coastal city voted against the waiver and all 12 votes to continue the waiver came from inland cities.

Note to Parsons: there are just three coastal cities—Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach—on OCSD's 25-member board. The 13 votes required for a majority depended on support from 10 inland cities. And that meant that politicians who live far from an ocean view had to consider the bigger picture—and then vote to increase the sewage bills for constituents without waterfront property.

They did. The cities of Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Irvine, La Habra, La Palma, Orange, along with the Costa Mesa Sanitary District and Irvine Ranch Water District and the Board of Supervisors joined the coastal cities in voting to defeat the waiver.

"It was an outstanding decision—it really was," said Shirley McCracken, the Anaheim city councilwoman just elected to chair the OCSD board.

Many of the yes votes came as a result of a long campaign by the Ocean Outfall Group, an environmental outfit that formed on the Internet 18 months ago and turned out in person to make informational presentations before every city council in the county. Its mantra: "Do us a favor, get rid of the waiver." After one such presentation, the Irvine City Council—which frequently splits along a 3-2 vote—opposed the waiver unanimously, even though it meant an increase in sewage rates.

"Let's be honest: Orange County has never been an area where people are open to tax or rate increases for much of anything," said Irvine Councilman Mike Ward, who is often on the losing side of those 3-2 votes. "But a good politician has to make decisions based on what is best, and sometimes that means you have to raise fees. When people realize what this increase will do, I think they will accept it. As someone who was born and raised enjoying the beaches, I'll pay to keep the ocean clean."

Irvine Councilman Greg Smith, who also frequently loses those 3-2 votes, embraced the cross-section of cities against the waiver.

"As a countywide issue, it's gratifying to see airport politics put aside," he said. "To see cities independently coming together and saying that polluted water is not a good thing for our county—whether they are on the coast or not—is wonderful. We haven't had many moments like this lately."

And we almost didn't, again.

Mike Alvarez, the mayor pro-tem of Orange, delivered an eloquent speech at the OCSD board meeting during which he exhorted his fellow directors to unanimously oppose the waiver. His words fell on 12 pairs of deaf ears.

"I really wanted us to pull together as an agency," said Alvarez. "I was surprised the vote was so close."

Perhaps the most persuasive language wasn't anywhere near the OCSD board room, but in the text of legislation pending in Sacramento. Assembly Bill 1969, which had already passed the state Assembly and the appropriations committee of the state Senate, would have prohibited the OCSD from re-applying for a 301 (h) waiver and given the agency until 2008 to meet the federal standard. If the OCSD missed that deadline (and general manager Blake Anderson is lately insisting compliance will take at least 10 years), it would be subject to mandatory daily fines.

Several directors mentioned the bill—significantly, authored by Ken Maddox, assemblyman from the inland cities of Garden Grove and Stanton—during their deliberations.

"I'm excited the OCSD board made this decision," Maddox said when informed of the resolution. "But I'm also a little dubious. I wonder if it's a clever ruse to get me to pull the bill—and then two months from now, they'll vote again and go for the waiver."

Maddox finally decided to pull the bill, but he warns that he will be watching the OCSD closely to be sure it does not drag its feet on compliance with the new sewage standards.

McCracken is pleased Maddox withdrew the bill. "We can come together and deal with our problems," she said. "We've just shown it with this vote. Hopefully, this is a beginning."

 
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