Focusing on the Greatest Risk Is the Key to Healthier Waters - Voice of San Diego

Opinion

Focusing on the Greatest Risk Is the Key to Healthier Waters

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board focuses on sites where it can make the greatest difference and protect the largest groups of people. In recent years, the board has prioritized large sources of pollution, such as the San Diego Bay shipyards, sewer overflows, the Tijuana River and watershed-wide stormwater runoff rather than small sites that present less risk.

A recent series by Voice of San Diego paints a picture of disarray and vast noncompliance when it comes to regulating stormwater runoff in and around San Diego businesses. This could not be further from the truth.

Commentary - in-story logoThe San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has many water-quality responsibilities. With a region that encompasses more than 3,900 miles of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties and several million residents, the board regulates more than 2,000 active construction sites, 38 municipalities, seven ocean outfalls for treated sewage discharges, six active landfills, more than 2,500 commercial agriculture operations, approximately 100 underground storage tanks, 322 Department of Defense site cleanups, 53 private cleanup sites, more than 50 campgrounds and the serious ongoing binational wastewater, trash and sediment discharges in the Tijuana River watershed.

The board focuses on sites where it can make the greatest difference and protect the largest groups of people. In recent years, the board has prioritized large sources of pollution, such as the San Diego Bay shipyards, sewer overflows, the Tijuana River and watershed-wide stormwater runoff rather than small sites that present less risk.

Tackling the greatest risk to environmental and human health will always be a priority of the San Diego Water Board. That will never change.

The board has had tremendous success, including issuing aggressive cleanup and abatement orders for the San Diego Bay shipyards, establishing a region-wide boatyards permit program and adopting a regional municipal stormwater permit program to protect our invaluable rivers, bays and beaches from the most acute health risks such as bacteria and other pathogens that can make the public sick.

With so many responsibilities, our resources will always remain prioritized based on the greatest threats to the environment.

Since 2016, the board has been working closely with the regulated community on the smooth rollout of the new statewide general industrial stormwater permit program, in which the board has enrolled more than 800 facilities region wide. Part of that effort includes working closely with the 38 municipalities throughout the region to identify and enroll or bring timely enforcement to noncompliant businesses. The third-party citizen lawsuit provisions are an integral component of the Clean Water Act and complement efforts to improve the quality of discharges from industrial sites.

In regulating industrial sites, board efforts concentrate on the appropriate compliance measures to get the job done. Our goal is a clean facility, clean water and visible compliance without bankrupting well-intentioned businesses that are seeking a pathway to compliance.

Overlooked by Voice of San Diego is the fact that small industrial sites enrolled in the state industrial stormwater permit program are not regulated with just numbers (e.g., parts per million of copper) like large industrial facilities or wastewater treatment plants, but rather through best management practices. When best practices are properly implemented and maintained, they are effective in protecting water quality. This is a standard approach practiced by the Environmental Protection Agency and states nationwide.

Accordingly, we do not react solely on the results of a single sample. The Regional Water Board carefully reviews reports and data, while taking into account how the samples were collected, handled and analyzed. The board also considers water chemistry exceedances together with the results of inspections, the nature of discharges, cooperation by the discharger and other factors to inform its enforcement actions.

Our goal is not to shut down businesses or extract monetary fines, but to bring businesses into compliance. Not all enforcement results in monetary penalties. We are getting results that matter – cleaner sites that are good for business, the community and better water quality for areas like Chollas Creek, Otay River and the San Diego Bay.

In the Chollas Creek watershed, the Regional Water Board found in its analyses that the major sources of copper and zinc were from roads, streets, highways and parking lots — not small industrial facilities. Roadways are a common source of pollutants for watersheds throughout the United States. Reducing pollutants from these areas is a job for the municipal stormwater effort, specifically the Watershed Water Quality Improvement Plan. This requires a different approach and set of tools and more staff time than regulating industry. If necessary, the Regional Water Board may develop its own local industrial stormwater approach for San Diego Bay watersheds more closely linked to municipal stormwater efforts.

The San Diego Water Board’s goal is to achieve clean, healthy waters for people and communities. San Diego Bay is healthier today than at any time in the last century despite a booming population and burgeoning tourism industry, industrial operations, busy shipyards and large naval facilities and a commercial and recreational waterfront intensively enjoyed by millions of residents.

Those efforts to clean up waterways move upstream into our communities and watersheds to restore the health of places like Chollas Creek. These type of actions won’t be accomplished solely through litigation. Working together through efforts like those laid out in the planning documents we call Strategy for a Healthy San Diego Bay and the Watershed Water Quality Improvement Plans, we can improve the balance of environmental, human and economic health in the San Diego region.

David Gibson is the executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Gibson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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