One permit to rule them all. 

That’s what Santa Ana regional water quality officials are planning for the first time, hoping for a more coordinated effort among Orange and two other counties to curb harmful pollutants from entering storm drains and washing into rivers, bays and the ocean untreated. 

It’s an idea that most can agree makes sense, over the historical practice of issuing separate sewer management permits for each county. 

After all, waterways don’t follow county lines. 

But a working proposal of this new regional permit – drafted by Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control officials – has environmentalists questioning whether it will protect polluters over natural water resources.

“We think there’s too many loopholes, and it’s too weak,” said Ray Hiemstra of OC Coastkeeper. 

It’s called an MS4 permit, and it’s drafted for local jurisdictions by the Governor-appointed regional water boards up and down California. Since the 1990s, the Santa Ana Water Board has regulated urban pollution through three separate ones issued to Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and have been renewed four times since then. 

Santa Ana water board staff put out their first working draft for a new permit in late 2021

This time, however, it would combine the requirements of the three counties’ separate permits.

The public can sign up for updates on the permit on the agency’s website, here

One top concern already surfacing among activists like Hiemstra and others across OC is a section of the draft allowing counties to come up with what’s called a Watershed Management Plan. 

Environmentalists call it a “safe harbor provision” – an easy shortcut to compliance – where even after receiving a water quality violation, county officials could draw up a plan for the issue, which would then shield them from any enforcement action while doing that additional planning.

“Basically, what we’re seeing is the foundation laid for the forthcoming region-wide permit to allow continuous loops of iterative planning processes without ultimately achieving water quality improvements,” said Lauren Chase, a senior staff attorney with OC Coastkeeper.

The idea is “not a good faith effort,” said Sean Bothwell, an attorney for the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “That’s just hiding accountability, quite frankly.” 

In a Wednesday interview, one Santa Ana water official rejected that notion.

Debris floats through a storm drain channel at Poche Beach on June 27, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“The Watershed Management Plan is not a safe harbor,” said Adam Fischer, a supervisor for the water board’s municipal stormwater unit. “What it does is, it simply changes the traditional liabilities and risks for the permittees to a different set of risks.”

Fischer said the new permit will hold counties to more tangible deadlines and give staff more clarity in identifying potential noncompliance.

“I would argue that the permittees may actually have more provisions that they could fall in violation of than they would have had previously,” Fischer said. “And I don’t see how anyone could see that as Safe Harbor.”

Fischer said the permitting process in itself is “iterative.”

To Hiemstra that means: “So you write a plan? Well, it didn’t work. So let’s change it. We’ll revise the plan.”

“Meaning that the permittees can just go about their business and pollute all they want,” said Bothwell.

Fischer said the permit structure won’t kick things down the road.

“If or when we come up against those deadlines, the permittees are likely to be found in violation, and we will take action when we get to that point.”

 He added: 

“I don’t think anybody’s thinking that the end result of this whole thing is that we issue a bunch of fines to a bunch of cities, I don’t think that’s what anybody really wants, think what people really want is improvements to water quality.”

Not Set in Stone

People walk past the storm drain channel at Poche Beach to access the beach. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Nothing’s final yet, as water officials say they’re taking in the input they’ve received so far from environmentalists.

“We found that there were some risks that were pointed out by the NGOs (non-governmental groups), and we are changing the language to hopefully address those risks,” Fischer said. 

Staff hope to put out a formal permit draft for more public review either later this month or next month. After that, they expect another public workshop with the voting water board members. A hearing to adopt the permit could come in the early part of next year.

Activists like Hiemstra, in turn, hope to influence the way this new regional permit shakes out. 

Another stakeholder: 

The counties.

Public Input

Since introducing a draft working proposal for what’s known as the MS4 permit in 2021, Santa Ana water board staff said they’ve held five meetings with the public and 13 with representatives from the would-be permitted counties: Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. 

“It sounds like they’re working very closely with the permittees on this thing,” said Sean Bothwell. “And that’s been the frustration – they’re not putting anything in front of us (environmentalists) yet they’re putting it in front of other people.”

Fischer said input shouldn’t be restricted to public meetings. 

“If anybody – whether it be the permittees of the public, were to call me, email me, send me a letter or anything like that, we’re going to accept that communication. And we’re going to consider that input. We’re not going to turn anybody away.”

Fischer added: “I think it’d be bad public policy to tell people that you can only communicate to us through public meetings and in public forums, right? Because not everybody’s comfortable doing that.”

In 2022, OC Public Works requested nine meetings with board staff about the permit, said agency spokesperson Shannon Widor. In 2023, Widor said the county requested four meetings with the regional board staff to “provide additional clarification on the comments submitted in October.”

Hiemstra said he’s not complaining that “we didn’t get 20 public meetings. We don’t have the capacity for 20 meetings, right?”

“They just shouldn’t be meeting with the county many times more.”


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