A Runoff Election in San Clemente

The Waters
of San Clemente Often Harbor Dirty Secrets.

car leaks oil or toxic antifreeze onto the pavement. It rains on a pesticide-laden
golf course. A restaurant dumps its waste grease down a storm drain. A sewer system
has holes in its beachside pipes. The Rancho Sprawlo Corporation grades
an entire mountain to build 25,000 identical homes and fills a creek basin with

If you live along
the coast, where do you think all this shit ends up? The answer is fairly simple.
Shit flows downhill, downhill is the ocean, you’re in the ocean, the shit
flows into you.

Urban runoff has
been a problem as long as people have lived along the oceanside. In recent years,
as coastal (and surfing) populations have exploded, the issue has become quite
serious. Spurned by increasingly outraged ocean users, a fed up U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and various regional water quality boards, many cities and
counties across the country have begun to tackle the issue head on. Nowhere
is this more evident in the southern Orange County cities of Laguna Beach, Dana
Point and San Clemente. Recently, under the prodding of the Surfrider Foundation
and the San Diego Water Quality District, San Clemente embarked on one of the
more comprehensive runoff-treatment solutions in the nation. The question is:
will its voters approve it?

Mark Cousineau
is the head of San Clemente’s Surfrider chapter, an environmental engineering
consultant and proprietor of the town’s Bagel Shack. He also charges big

“Surfrider and
others in the community had been pushing San Clemente get a plan to deal with
urban runoff,” says Cousineau. “And we were able to make it the city’s
top priority.”

Where Do
You Think This Water Ends Up?

“We got an urban
runoff management plan partly funded through the EPA,” says councilwoman Stephanie
Dorey. “That gave us the guidelines on what we needed to do and suggested some
ways to do it. Some structural and some educational. We’re still in the
learning stages as to what actually works.”

Dorey says the
plan came about as a result of something called the Drainage Area Management
Plan, and because of high-profile pollution and runoff cases like Aliso Creek
in Laguna Beach. Towns would say that they had management plans, and many did,
but they were not implementing them. “I think the Regional Water Quality Board
got fed up with that and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make you do some
things. We’re going to tighten up everything.’ Boy, the towns were
squawking and whining. They said RWQ regulations were ‘onerous’. It
was unbelievable. I just applaud the fact that the Board did it. It woke everyone

The initial San
Clemente plan includes a wastewater treatment system at Poche beach, treatment
systems at North Beach, diversions for other runoff sources into the sewer system
during the dry season, and filters and collectors for trash and rough debris
along the city’s various storm drain locations. Additionally, the plan
calls for increased street sweeping, which it had cut back on about ten years
ago. Street sweeping can be particularly important because a good street sweeping
machine can pick up much of the oil, brake dust and animal waste that would
otherwise run to the ocean.

“The plan looks
at dealing with the acute problems we have now,” says Cousineau, “and then educating
and changing people’s behavior for the long term. There’s also a town
water conservation person who has already been hired.” The plan even goes so
far as to print thousands of copies of Surfrider’s “20 Ways You Can Keep
the Ocean Clean” in Spanish.

runoff from improper cleaning methods at restaurants, like this popular
sushi joint in north San Clemente is a big problem statewide. Photo: Babski/Surfrider

Cousineau and Dorey
both feel the plan could be somewhat more stringent and innovative, but both
feel that it will accomplish what it was set up to do. The problem will be paying
the $1.7 million that the plan will cost annually. Originally, the plan was
to add $5.00 per month to the existing $2.83 storm drain fee that San Clemente
property owners currently pay. But a law passed a few years ago said that if
a city wanted to start charging new fees, it had to put the fees to a vote.
Fearing that the $5.00 increase might not stand up in court, San Clemente mailed
out a ballot to property owners on the 16th of September asking them
if a clean ocean was worth an extra $5.00 a month.

The San Diego Regional
water quality board has already put into motion new regulations that most coastal
towns from Irvine south will have to follow. Should voters in all towns not
approve such motions, the towns will still have to instigate them. Thus, San
Clemente is a test case for all of California and perhaps much of the nation.

“We have this program,”
says Cousineau, “and we have to pay for it. If the vote fails, we still have
to eventually set up this kind of a program, so it will become a matter of what
programs do we cut. Lifeguards? Parks Service? City Programs? After school care?
Something will have to go and it’s not going to be police or fire. It becomes
a question: Is your beach worth five bucks a month? That’s one beer after
work at the Fisherman’s or a pack of smokes. If the city doesn’t comply
with this permit, it will face fines of $27,000 a day – that money will
go to the state – not to San Clemente.”

Dorey, who was
essentially the first San Clemente Councilperson to ever win on an environmental
platform, helped put together a poll that asked what the town’s environmental
concerns were. “With ocean pollution, we found that the level of satisfaction
was extremely low and the willingness to make it better was extremely high.
In a poll, the people voted for a clean ocean. Let’s see if they’ll
actually do it.”

This trash
was stopped by a "catchment" at Ballona Creek in Los Angeles.
Disgusting, isn’t it?

To Cousineau, having
this measure pass is not only a measure of civic pride, but of gauging people’s
environmental commitment. “Are we a greening society? Are we willing to put
our money where out mouth is? Environmentalism doesn’t come free. My guess
is that this issue is going to come up more and more in the coming years. You
want clean water, are you willing to pay for it?”

According to Cousineau
and Dorey, the jury is still out on whether or not the city will pay
for it. Mostly, according to Cousineau, those who oppose the measure are the
same folks who oppose taxation on any grounds, and those on fixed income or
Social Security for whom $5.00 goes a long way.

“It’s never
going to be completely fair,” says Dorey. “You try to do the best you can. Every
time I talk to someone about this, I say, ‘we’re all part of the problem’.
Let’s all be part of the solution.”

This Article on Surfermag.com’s Bulletin Board

Protection Agency’s Urban Runoff Information Page

Forum Explores Runoff Fee

Clemente City Government’s Page on the Urban Runoff Fee