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Checking up on the creek

Ecology: Tests of sites along Aliso Creek show high amounts of bacteria throughout most of south county.

August 1, 2001

By SUSAN GILL VARDON and JIM RADCLIFFE
The Orange County Register

The Kite Hill neighborhood of Laguna Niguel has been the whipping boy for ocean-polluting suburbia for almost two years.

Residents have been horrified by their link to high fecal coliform bacteria that washed from their streets to Aliso Creek and into the ocean.

Now they have plenty of company.

Fecal bacteria is everywhere. In Aliso Creek, that is.

A report released Tuesday by Orange County officials shows that fecal coliform levels are high along all 11 miles of Aliso Creek - from Mission Viejo all the way downstream to where it spills into the ocean at Laguna Beach.

"We've been saying all along that we don't see any difference between this neighborhood and any other neighborhood," said Ken Montgomery, Laguna Niguel director of public works.

"Basically it's a societal thing," he said. "If you have a lawn and irrigation and a typical suburban environment, these are typical numbers."

In a 10-week test, officials found that creek water failed to meet safe-swimming standards 99 percent of the time. It failed to meet standards for beachcombing or boating 54 percent of the time.

For the test, county biologists sampled 35 street drainpipes and about 60 other spots in Aliso Creek and its tributaries once a week from April to June for levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

AN ULTIMATUM FROM WATER REGULATORS

The county and seven cities were ordered March 2 by state water regulators to investigate the sources of the creek contamination and find ways to clean it or face enforcement, including fines.

They have been told to make the bacteria-laden water acceptable for swimming, a higher standard than regulators demanded in the past.

The water-quality board's proposed municipal storm water permits also require cities to adopt ordinances saying residents can't wash their cars, hose down the driveway or over-water their lawn if the water runs into the street - and into the storm drains.

And they will have to hire water police to enforce it.

"It will put the cities in a tough position," said Kathleen McGowan, environmental engineer for Aliso Viejo. "The City Council is elected by the residents but the residents will be told you can't do this and that."

San Diego County offers a glimpse of what Orange County could face.

In February, the board passed that area's storm-water permit, and cities are scrambling to comply by next year.

San Diego is expected to pay millions of dollars to curb the targeted urban runoff, but even small cities like 60,000-resident Encinitas must fork out big bucks.

That coastal city has budgeted $500,000 this year just to administer and monitor its program.

"We're definitely afraid," said Kathy Weldon, Encinitas' storm-water-program manager. "I mean, on Feb. 21, they can say, 'You're program's inadequate here, here, here and here.' They can fine us $10,000 a day."

The next steps for Orange County and seven south- county cities are more testing of the pipes and creek, and for each to come up with a solution for one of its problem areas, county officials said. They also will focus efforts on areas used for recreation.

Tracking down the problem

Laguna Niguel has seen its water-quality budget catapult from $20,000 to $500,000 in two years -- since it got a clean up order from the water-quality board for the pipe that collects the Kite Hill runoff.

The city developed a water-cleaning wetlands network and installed a system that zaps the runoff with ultraviolet rays to kill the bacteria.

But for cities like Aliso Viejo, which just incorporated last month and has no revenue of its own yet, it's an expensive proposition to hire the staff to monitor and find a solution for the creek pollution.

And that is on top the proposed storm-water permit, which could bring sweeping changes in environmental regulations that will force counties and cities in California to reduce the amount of sewage and other pollutants that make their way to the ocean through storm drains.

Aliso Viejo Mayor Carmen Vali said she wants to make sure the city doesn't pay more than its fair share.

"As a new city we are aggressively pursuing grants and other sources of money to help us finance whatever we're responsible for," Vali said. "But we're going to be very careful and make sure testing and monitoring is done well and fairly."

John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said cities must take action.

"It's time for the municipalities to look at the results and determine, if the numbers are high, what is happening in that watershed to cause that bacteria," he said.

"We still need to find out where it comes from, how it moves through the system and how long it stays alive."

The worst reading -- at 24,279, 121 times the acceptable level - was at a pipe near Los Alisos Boulevard and Entidad in Mission Viejo.

City officials say the high reading is a mystery.

The pipe collects runoff from residential tracts and open space in the area -- a typical part of the city, said Dennis Wilberg, Mission Viejo public-works director. In previous studies, when the creek bed near the pipe was tested it met or nearly met the criteria, he said.

Victor Graff, whose house sits on a ridge overlooking Aliso Creek near the site, said Tuesday that he sees people run and walk along the creek.

But children don't play in the water, he said.

Nicole Astle was more taken aback by the news about the high fecal-bacteria count.

"It's pretty gross," said Astle, a Laguna Niguel resident who was at Del Lago Elementary School in Mission Viejo waiting for her son.

"I don't let my kids go play down by the creek anyway."