Politics and Polllution
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Monterey’s city beach was closed last week for two days because the water was found to be dangerous to human health. On Aug. 15, the State Water Board will visit Monterey to address stormwater and nonpoint source discharges into Monterey Bay. Because our waters contain Areas of Special Biological Significance, all of the Peninsula’s municipalities have been found to be in violation of state-mandated rules regarding runoff. Last week, the Weekly invited a panel to address the issue, and the larger question of how to deal with the waste that is flushed daily into Monterey Bay.
The group met for two hours in the Weekly’s offices on Friday, July 26. They were joined by Eric Johnson, Ryan Masters and Raul Vasquez of the Weekly. What follows is an edited transcript of the first half of our conversation. (An expanded version is available at mcweekly.com.) Part two will run in next week’s issue of the Weekly.
FRED MEURER: It always boils down to: Who’s going to pay for it?
The state waters are the state’s responsibility. In fact, the state told me I could not regulate kelp harvesting in the water we own. We actually lost a lawsuit over that a couple of years ago when we tried to regulate how much kelp would be taken. They told us it’s theirs. Yet when it comes time to determine the health of the [kelp] forest, that’s our problem.
US REP. SAM FARR The Monterey Bay area congressman and former Monterey County supervisor is the author of the Oceans Act, which established the US Oceans Commission and produced the devastating report on the health of the world’s oceans in 2004, and has worked on ocean-heath issues for two decades.
FRED MEURER Monterey’s city manager since 1991, Meurer finds himself in the center of a fight with the government of the State of California over his city’s urban runoff.
JIM COLANGELO When he took over the job as city manager of Pacific Grove a year ago, Colangelo inherited a slew of problems, including PG’s notorious sewer system.
BRIDGET HOOVER As the Citizen Watershed Monitoring Network coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Hoover oversees a unique program that is gathering some troubling data about pollution from runoff.
ANGELI JAISWAL Anjeli Jaiswal is a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of “A Practical Plan for Pollution Prevention: Urban Runoff Solutions for the Monterey Region.”
D’ANNE ALBERS D’Anne Albers is the executive director of Friends of the Sea Otter. She attended the round table; her comments appear in part two, which will be published next week.
We’re the one’s doing the mussel watch; we’re the one’s doing the sampling—because the state can’t or won’t do it anymore. They’re trying to push off their responsibilities to someone else.
[Addressing Angeli Jaiswal]: We’ve been on the opposite sides of the microphone. But I have not heard a single suggestion about what we should do that’s a bad idea. It’s just the priority vis a vis other things that the general fund pays for—trade off library hours, recreation, police, if we’re struggling with our stormwater, for instance.
Before it’s all over, I can almost guarantee you, we will be criticized by other cities in California because we have willingly agreed to do too much—[things] that most cities can’t afford. We can’t afford it either, but in our particular case—PG, Monterey and our partners in the region—we’ve put a high value on it.
So I get irritated when we’re accused of being environmental outlaws because we refuse to roll over on this or that.
At the same time, we’re agreeing to an awful lot of things. And right now I don’t know how I’m going to pay for some of this—there are going to be tradeoffs. But I do bristle and say, “I’m just not going to do this unless the State Water Board makes me do it.” When I’m told, “Well, we want you to do monitoring.” If the monitoring is not required by law, I’m not going to volunteer to do it. I’m going to ask the State to make me do it. When the State makes me do it, then we’ll really find out how important it is, because I’ll put in an unfunded state mandate [a formal request for financial aid to fulfill the requirements of a state regulation] and they will either reimburse us for doing it or we’ll stop doing it.
That’s the road we have to walk very, very carefully. We want to do what’s right. We want to protect the very thing we’ve worked so hard to build. At the same time, we don’t have a bottomless pit of money.
I was shocked when one of the Regional Water Quality Control Board members, you may remember this, when I said “the issue is money,” his answer was “raise the hotel tax.” He obviously has no idea how finance works in the state of California. The people of California said, “We don’t want to be taxed and it’s going to take two-thirds of us to say yes if we’re going to be taxed.”
SAM FARR: I think what we’re seeing is this is really a governance issue. All problems are local and we always solve problems locally. And the localest of local is cities. But as we look at this problem we see it can’t be solved locally, this is more of a regional problem.
That gets back to habitat. That’s what a region is. And we moved a lot of governance structures to the region—regional transportation, regional water quality, the coastal act is broken into regions and the airport is a region. But we haven’t brought the money together regionally. The fix has got to be local. So we don’t have an equal burdenship…
I know what LA did. My friends did it. They went out and were polling people. They were looking for a political issue, and they found this: water pollution on the beaches. The number one tourist destination in California, in the US, is the LA beaches. More people visit them than anything other venue in the US. And they obviously want clean water. So we found out that [people polled said] yes, the Santa Monica Bay is polluted—that’s our number-one issue. Not terrorism. And then they launched a campaign to raise revenue to pay for it.
They have an urban runoff tax in the LA basin. Approved by the voters.
BRIDGET HOOVER: It takes education of the general public. Like what you were saying, Fred, you guys aren’t the polluters, it’s everyone living and working in the cities. We’re all contributing to it. Driving our cars, spreading our fertilizers, and all of that.
[We need to be] getting the message out that it’s everyone’s problem—and everybody has to help solve it. Whether it’s changing their daily activities or supporting bond issues to help fund infrastructure improvements or things like that.
FRED MEURER: We have models for how you do that, and probably the oldest model, on all that sharing business, is transportation. We create a regional transportation plan, you prioritize that, and then you fund it with some federal, state and OSHA money.
ANGELI JAISWAL: Looking at the cost: The new study that came out from UCLA and Stanford University exemplifies really what the costs are with stormwater pollution/urban runoff. In what happens with public health cost and public perception.
People are perceiving that it’s unhealthy to go to the beach. It’s going to affect the economic bottom line of all these communities, including the Monterey region and the Central Coast, which has the fastest growing ocean economy in California.
The Monterey region has a $1.8 billion coastal economy. Like [Bridget] was saying, this is all of our problem—from a cost perspective…the cost of having a dirty ocean in PG or Carmel Bay.
SAM FARR: Where should the money come from?
ANGELI JAISWAL: There are creative solutions that we’ve seen. Different budgets. Here in LA, when that proposition was put on the ballot last year, it received a 76 percent approval rating. Californians are willing to pay for clean water.
FRED MEURER: I’m not that familiar with your campaign. But I know that when Carmel put a stormwater utility on their ballot to help—they saw the Clean Water Act coming; we implemented our stormwater utility before 218 passed. Carmel and Salinas both tried to pass it and both failed.
BRIDGET HOOVER: Do you think that’s from not educating the public enough? They really didn’t understand and believe that that money was going to be focused on making improvements?
FRED MEURER: I don’t know. I think it was pretty clear in the [Measure A] election that the money was going to be focused on road improvements.
When I go to my neighborhood meetings, the top complaint I have is not about stormwater or clean beaches. It’s about roads. And [Measure A] failed.
I was asked recently, at a Rotary meeting, what I thought was the single biggest threat to the future of Monterey. And my answer was the general unwillingness of today’s voting population to invest in the future, as our parents and grandparents invested in our future.
We don’t want to pay taxes, and we’ve created this framework of public decision-making that makes it almost impossible to pass a revenue piece until you’ve gotten to the crisis level. City managers are supposed to make sure you never get to the crisis level.
That’s where Jim [Colangelo] and I get frustrated. If you let it get so bad—I don’t know if it was intentional, but it got so bad with the sewer system in PG that they finally got support, with Angeli’s help, to do something about it. We had a different approach, but it’s really tough. That’s our frustration.
How do I come up with the money to do it? If it’s a state mandate like ASBS, I’m going to say no and make them make me do it, so I have at least a half a chance at reimbursement.
ANGELI JAISWAL: In some respects that doesn’t take into account the whole picture. We know that clean water equals a healthy economy. There’s no way a city is going to know where its dollars are being spent or if they’re being spent effectively if there’s no monitoring program.
SAM FARR: I don’t think there’s any dispute that there’s a problem and there needs to be a solution.
The problem with revenue issues is that they’re not as bad as they seem—they’re a whole lot worse. I think American society has forgotten that the price you pay for civilization is taxes. The administration in Washington has been cutting the revenue for the federal government not by the millions and billions but by the trillions of dollars. I sit on the Appropriations Committee, which is the committee that authorizes all of these expenditures for the federal government. We have a new policy that says “No new starts.” If it’s new it can’t be done, no matter what the problem is.
Now for avian flu we found some emergency money. It’s all emergency money. We paid for it with a credit card. We paid for Katrina with a credit card. We’re paying for Iraq with a credit card. We have not balanced it out.
We’re taking the money that’s coming in from Social Security, where we have a surplus, and we’re just taking that money and spending it on the Iraq War.
So you come in with your…I mean, everyone makes these economic arguments, an ounce of prevention is clearly worth a pound of cure. If you think this works, why hasn’t global warming been picked up globally as a political issue? That doesn’t even cost that much, it’s more just a change of behavior.
We’re in a real crisis where people just aren’t...maybe that’s government’s fault, we haven’t prioritized. But what is a priority in your life? If you have children your priority is education; if you’re an elderly person it’s health care and Social Security. It has a lot to do with where you are in society and what you’re willing to pay for. Collectively to get everyone out to say, “Why should people in Monterey have to pay for water that’s being polluted by people from all over California or even the world?”
This issue is clearly a problem. The problem is we do not have a solution that people are willing to step up to the plate and vote for, and that’s a big problem with Monterey County.
I’ve found if there’s one ounce of opposition: Monterey school bonds were turned down—opposition from people who didn’t like how they were going to spend them; Natividad Center—great plan, got 65 percent, missed by one percent; there was opposition from the Farm Bureau and others; this last road election, there were some taxpayer groups who opposed that. All you have to do is read a little opposition and boom, you’ve lost it.
What can we find unanimous consent on? The oceans? I’d love to know, because I’m trying to get as much damn money as I can to solve all these problems.
ERIC JOHNSON: Jim, your city’s taken as much heat on this issue as anyone. I’d like to bring you into this conversation.
JIM COLANGELO: I’ve only been there for a year working on this issue. But the thing that frustrates me about this the most is that we spend so much time arguing about the policy and theory of it. Everyone’s in agreement that we need a fix, but what we don’t have answers to is what’s it going to take to fix it, and what’s it going to cost to fix it?
At the state level we’re all arguing about: should the ocean plan standards be kept in place? And the jurisdictions all say that if they are, we can’t afford to solve this problem. And we’re saying, let’s do something different. And I think the environmental groups are rightly saying, we don’t want to back off the [State of California’s] Ocean Plan Standards because those need to be kept in place to keep the ocean healthy.
There is money at the state level—unfortunately it’s grant money that’s going to be used on a competitive basis, nobody’s going to get enough to do worthwhile projects. And after we debate this for another couple years at the policy level, we’ll all be scrambling to the State to compete for crumbs.
I think the State needs to identify what really works and what doesn’t work. They need to come forth with some pilot projects. And I was kind of hoping that the Monterey Bay area could become a pilot project and actually spend some money in this area and see what works and what doesn’t work, so when we go out to the voters we can say: This is what it’s going to cost to fix it; these are the solutions we like; these are the ones that really make a difference in the ocean, so they have some confidence that we know what we’re talking about.
Because if I got to the voters now and I say I need X dollars, and I don’t know what X is, to fix this problem, and I don’t know what the fix is—and if you give me all this money and I build this solution, I’m not sure if it’s going to make a difference in the ocean—there’s no chance of getting that through. But if we can get some of that state money, and get some pilot projects going and see what works and what doesn’t, I think this is a great place to see what works.