Assessing Risk Information Concerning Coastal Runoff

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Executive Summary

In coastal urban watersheds, runoff from the landscape eventually reaches the ocean. If beaches along the ocean are used for recreation, three vital and interrelated questions arise. First, whether and to what extent does urban runoff degrade the quality of ocean water that is used for recreation? Second, to what extent docs this runoff-related ocean pollution pose a risk to the health of recreational water users? Third, what sort(s) of policy response may be necessary to address runoff-related ocean water pollution and/or the health risks it poses?

It is commonplace to say that such decisions 'should be based on science,' but other factors are at play. One factor that may affect the development of policy responses to coastal runoff is the portrayal in the public domain of the connections between coastal urban runoff, ocean water quality, and health risks associated with recreational water contact. News media reports are one source of these portrayals when journalists report on beach warnings, closures, and related newsworthy events. Reports and press releases from other organizations (such as environmental groups and surfing or swimming clubs) are another source of these portrayals. Public officials may feel pressure to respond to these portrayals.

Lately, news media and other organizations have focused attention on coastal water quality and human health risks, especially in California, in connection with the sudden increase of health advisories posted at public beaches and the number of beach closures. That increase coincides with the implementation of California's recently enacted law (commonly referred to as AB 411 — Statutes of 1997) and regulations establishing statewide protocols for coastal water-quality testing and bacteriological water-quality standards. The rationale for the passage of AB 411, as well as for the regulations promulgated to implement the laws purpose, was to enact a set of risk-based coastal water-quality standards for recreational ocean water contact (swimming, surfing, etc.).

While the new law and regulations have prompted more health warnings and beach closures, public concern has also increased about coastal water quality (as measured by public opinion surveys). Beach closures and frequent advisories appear to have reduced attendance at public beaches and have harmed the economies of coastal communities that depend in part on beach-related tourism. The combination of public concern and economic impacts have prompted local public officials to respond to the Issue of coastal water quality. A particular focus of attention has been coastal runoff— the water that reaches the coast from inland sources such as streams and stonn channels, earning pollutants from streets, landscaping, commercial activities, and even pets.

In the coastal urban watersheds of Southern California, a remarkable number of regulatory and remedial actions were undertaken concerning coastal ninoff from mid-1998 through mid-2001. Millions of dollars of public funds have been devoted to a variety of efforts to reduce, intercept, divert, or treat urban runoff before it reaches the ocean, and millions more have been spent on efforts to improve ocean water-quality monitoring. New regulatory standards have been fashioned and adopted for reducing, capturing, or treating runoff before it reaches the coast. Residential and commercial development projects have been placed on hold by these new regulatory requirements as well as the more vigorous enforcement of existing ones. The anticipated costs of runoff reduction projects already planned or underway — and of meeting the new regulator)' standards for new developments — run into the billions of dollars for Southern California alone.

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