Low-impact development rules approved in Ventura

Local officials, environmentalists and developers in Ventura have been wrestling with an unprecedented stormwater management plan that could set tough limits on what new development in that county must do with rainfall. The decision could set examples for how California's other coastal counties deal with rainfall that can pollute coastal waters and foul beaches, creating environmental and public health risks. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board approved - for the second time - a permit setting out guidelines for low-impact development in the Ventura watershed.

It'll still be days before anyone can explain what those guidelines are.

When rain beats down on undeveloped land in Ventura, as in other parts of southern California, much of it stays there. As much as 90 percent of stormwater infiltrates into soil and rock or evaporates back into the atmosphere; what's left runs off the land and falls into rivers, creeks, or the ocean.

A long growing Southland population has brought parking lots, basketball courts, driveways, sidewalks and roads with it. Development means pavement. Water that hits that impermeable surface zips right into stormwater pipes and into the sea, or into creeks and rivers nearby. With it go chemicals, oil, trash, bacteria and metals.

Low-impact development aims to prevent that. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, low-impact development "works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible."

In Ventura, a public comment, hearing, and negotiation process yielded the first numeric limits on stormwater runoff. The permit approved capturing water on site with ditches, cisterns, rain barrels, retention basins and vegetative roofs.

The building industry objected. The Southern California chapter of the Building Industry Association has argued the permit could destroy the promise of new development. The BIA claims requiring development to keep water on site may create conflicts with existing regulation, could slow re-development and encourage sprawl, and may not, in some cases, be possible. (As proposed last summer, if retaining all the stormwater isn't possible on site, it's possible to minimize runoff elsewhere.) Advocates for developers want to be able to filter rainwater through soil, sand, or rock on site, and release it.

Some technical and administrative issues forced regional regulators to reconsider the stormwater permit. Last Thursday in Ventura, the regional water board again held a public hearing to discuss the plan for stormwater management at development sites.

The board again approved the permit. But no staff from the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board have commented publicly about the decision. Modifications to the language in the permit created during the hearing have yet been made public.

Holly Schroeder with the BIA is hopeful about the modifications. Schroeder argues the changes would allow developers to use all reasonable ways to control pollution from stormwater.

Noah Garrison, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, is skeptical about what happened Thursday. He counters that new provisions added to the permit during the hearing loosen restrictions in the stormwater management plan significantly.

Until the regional water quality control board makes the final language it approved available, what exactly the stormwater plan will do isn't clear. Even if the permit is free from legal challenge, Ventura county and its cities must figure out how to implement the rules, educate the public about them, and use them in considering applications for new development. All that could take more than a year and a half: which means there's plenty more waiting to do for low-impact development in the Ventura watershed.