Illustration by Bob Aul Local officials went absolutely apeshit on Sept. 25 when Governor Gray Davis vetoed a $6.9 million bill that was supposed to address OC's urban-runoff problem. Ray Silver, Huntington Beach's city administrator, expressed outrage in the Sept. 28 Orange County Register, saying Davis has "vetoed everything out of the budget for Huntington Beach." The city last summer experienced long beach closures due to urban runoff:sewage, toxins and other gunk from our madcap lifestyle that oozes into the ocean. Assemblyman Scott "Slime" Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), the bill's author, was equally miffed, not buying Davis' argument that, essentially, the legislation sucks.
Silver's and Baugh's statements—coupled with implications Republican insiders raised with the Weekly last week—were clear: the Democratic governor was playing politics with GOP-controlled OC and the party's Assembly leader, Baugh. Whether or not that's true, it's still worth noting that Davis is right: the legislation sucks.
The goal of the spending would be to divert tainted runoff to sewage treatment plants, where the bad water supposedly would become good water before being pumped a mile or two offshore. Sounds good. But the flow of urban runoff, which is mainly carried through creeks and flood-control channels that drain to the coast, runs with the seasons: it's a raging river in the wet months and a gentle stream in the dry. Because sewage treatment plants are designed to handle a limited amount of human waste, they could take only the lowest flows of urban runoff. Low flow is when runoff is least contaminated—except for the anomaly of the '99 Huntington closures.
Which brings up another problem: what is being cleaned up. The bacteria detected in HB's surf in '99 was so indicative of human shit that it was believed a sewage pipe must have broken somewhere. Human shit can be one component of urban runoff, but so can a lot of other things—animal shit, motor oil, pesticides, herbicides, brake-pad lining and more. Sewage-treatment plants rely on little human-shit-eating bugs to de-shit waste. They aren't there to eat the oils, chemicals and other industrial toxins in the runoff—and there's mounting evidence that, if they do, they become ineffective at dealing with the human shit.
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So under the diversion delusion, the treatment plants would ideally take the waste out of the runoff. But what of the other nasty toxins? Would they be pumped unimpeded into the ocean? Would the waste treater use a bunch of chemicals to neutralize the other stuff? Do we want to risk having the ocean a mile or two out as contaminated as the shoreline?
(It's worth nothing the Huntington Beach-area treatment plants already operate under waivers that allow their shit/clean-water mix to be shittier than federal standards allow.)
Add these questions: this bill addresses treatment for just one part of Orange County. What about the rest of the coast? Are they all to get the same state funding to divert? What about inland cities, where much of the troubling waste has its origin? Shouldn't their urban runoff be treated, too? Who's going to pay for all the new treatment plants that will have to be built to handle all that added capacity?
And what about the rest of the year? Urban runoff is at its worst after pouring rain flushes out the rivers and creeks and cement channels. Diverting those flows would overwhelm already overburdened sewage treatment plants.
The major problem with Baugh's bill is that it does nothing about identifying and neutralizing the source of the pollution. Indeed, its passage—and subsequent backslapping photo ops—would create the perception that the urban runoff problem is being solved. That would allow us to continue with our overfertilized, overdeveloped, overautomobile-dependent ways.
Clockwork never thought we'd live to type these words: Gray Davis absolutely did the right thing.
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