There is nothing more vital to the survival of the human race than clean water — whether it is for drinking or for the health of marine life. Environmental groups such as Los Angeles’ Heal the Bay, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Surfrider Foundation and the Ventura Coastkeeper spend a lot of time, energy and money advocating for ways to keep rivers, wetlands and oceans clean.

And last month, those eco-friendly organizations had a huge victory at the Southern California Water Board meeting when the board approved of a new, very strict municipal discharge (storm water runoff) permit that enhances and/or introduces 70 requirements that every city in Ventura County must comply with — the county’s third updated municipal permit.

Of the new mandates, one in particular has caused a lot of consternation — low impact development (LID). The LID rule requires all new developments to retain 70 percent (for infill projects) to 95 percent (for all other projects) of storm water runoff on site, i.e., low impact development.

According to Vicki Musgrove, the assistant public works director for the City of Ventura, the LID regulation is one of the most stringent and unique development requirements in the country.

This means that for projects coming down the pipeline, developers must engineer ways to capture, store and/or use up to 95 percent of storm water that falls on a site from a three-quarter-inch storm — a typical rainstorm. By storing the water on site, the water that flows into the storm drains, and then into the ocean and rivers, is expected to be much cleaner than it has been in the past.

Former storm water runoff regulations allowed the developers to treat the water on site, usually by a bio swale (a ditch with plants), a mechanical filter or impervious retention basin (basically a hole in the ground), and then let it flow off site to the storm drains or into the groundwater table.

While environmental groups applaud the decision of the board to approve such a strict requirement, Holly Schroeder, CEO of Los Angeles/Ventura counties Building Industry Association (BIA), said she believes this could be devastating to new development.

“Lots of projects won’t be able to comply with this agreement,” Schroeder said. “We, the BIA, argued that we need to be able to release the water from the site. For a lot of projects, it will not be feasible to infiltrate or store for use or to evaporate that amount of water.”

Local developer Dave Armstrong supports decisions relating to better storm water runoff policies, but says having to store so much water on site, especially for infill projects — lots in urban settings that need to be developed or redeveloped — is impractical.

“Where do you store it and what do you do with it?” Armstrong asked. “You have to get rid of it. You can’t just keep it there forever.”

Kirsten James, water quality director for Heal the Bay, said that there is a misconception about developers being forced to hold storm water on site.

“If infeasibility is demonstrated, there is an offramp,” James said. “People can comply by addressing [other] existing storm drain issues elsewhere.”

She cited the Ventura County Government Center parking lot and the pollutants and debris that get washed into the storm drains. She said developers could invest in gathering rainwater on site there that would offset another particular development that didn’t have the space to store rainwater.

Engineer Don Jensen of Jensen Design and Survey Inc. said that although the updated permit and all the new requirements have been agreed upon and approved by the Regional Water Control Board, there is an 18-month window when developers may pull construction permits without having to abide by the new rules. This is because the cities still have to draw up the final draft addressing the LID requirements; and until then, engineers, architects and developers alike will have to wait to see what is in the final copy.

“On the surface, it appears to be about absolute retention,” Jensen said. “The devil is in the details.”

While some developers may be ready to go and able to pull permits, other projects either will have to be planned to adhere to the new requirements or will just stay in limbo until those involved know what their options are, if storage is infeasible.

But developers aren’t the only ones who will have to comply with rigorous requirements. Every city in Ventura County will also have to abide by the other 69 or so regulations.

“Local governments are to pay the biggest price, but local development will see the biggest changes,” said Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, one of three city managers who signed the final municipal discharge agreement.

For the city of Ventura, for example, Musgrove said that it will cost the city an additional $1 million to fulfill its obligations. The money will go toward public outreach and educational workshops, putting devices in catch basins and inspecting businesses in the community. And the city must comply within 90 days.

Musgrove’s biggest concern is figuring out where the money is going to come from. Right now, property owners in the city of Ventura pay a $6 storm water assessment fee. She said the new fee will be bumped up to $60, but the city’s hands are tied. The only way to allocate such funds from the taxpayers is to vote on it. And with the probability of it not passing being high because of the recession, other programs and services may have to be cut. But she said it would be worth it.

“It will be very expensive, and we have to figure out how to make it work,” she said. “But in the end, really, what is clean water worth?”   

michael@vcreporter.com