O.C. ( Orange County CA) environment a story of change
Judging the state of Orange County's environment demands clear-eyed measurements of air, water and habitat quality. And most of those measurements suggest one word: change.
In some cases, a lot of it.
While our air quality is often better than that of neighbors to the north, smog scientists are increasingly raising concerns about fine particle pollution - tiny bits of brake dust, soot and other material that can work their way deep into the lungs.
As perceptions - and air quality regulations - change, what once seemed to be acceptable pollution levels move increasingly into the "unhealthful" column. The challenge will be finding new ways to reduce air pollution in Southern California, where state and federal air-quality regulations are already among the most strict.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District is seeking ways to cut fine particle pollution in time to meet a 2015 deadline. Missing it could jeopardize federal funds, such as highway funding.
Orange County and the rest of the Los Angeles basin has seen a gradual drop in the number of days in which pollution levels violated national health standards. The basin has seen four such days so far in 2009, preliminary data show; last year, there were 119. In 2000, there were 126, and in 1990 there were 181, according to the state Air Resources Board.
Water remains an issue, whether coming into our homes or leaving them. Supplies are tightening for a variety of reasons, including the often dry conditions affecting reservoirs statewide and required protections for a tiny fish called the delta smelt. Saving the smelt has meant reducing pumping from the California Bay delta, which means less water flowing downstream to Southern California.
The Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, the region's water wholesaler, cut water allocations to downstream agencies earlier this month by 10 percent. Combined with other cuts during the previous fiscal year, it really amounts to about a 20 percent cut.
Metropolitan also boosted the rates it charges those agencies by 19.7 percent, a number that includes a $69-per-acre-foot surcharge that could be ended if conditions improve for the smelt.
The decision, expected for months, will likely trigger a variety of conservation measures, including water rationing, as summer approaches. Water agencies and cities will now decide what measures to take.
The Municipal Water District of Orange County has been working with its 28 member agencies to craft new ordinances that include conservation measures as well as penalties for violators.
The drinking-water aquifer beneath north and central Orange County, managed by the Orange County Water District, provides more than half the water needed by 23 cities - most recently 69 percent. The rest is imported. South Orange County imports nearly all its water.
Our wastewater presents its own challenges. Even runoff from too much watering can pick up contaminants and carry them into the ocean. Some of the runoff creates full-strength streams and waterfalls that wreak havoc with native ecosystems adapted to drier conditions.
Sewage is treated at the county's sanitation district plants, although occasional spills, typically from systems overwhelmed by rain, send raw sewage down storm drains and into the near-shore ocean.
The cities, along with the regional water boards, make rules to limit urban runoff, while bacteria levels in the near-shore ocean are monitored by Orange County Health Care Agency officials and the Orange County Sanitation District.
Sewage spills reported to the county have been dropping steadily for years. There were 266 sewage spills in 2008, down from 293 a year earlier. There were 18 ocean swimming closures, up a bit from 12 in 2007 but not statistically significant, said Larry Honeybourne of the Health Care Agency.
Habitat, species preservation
And in the world of native habitat, significant changes also are registering among scientists. A recent study by Audubon California projected that bird species, including the threatened California gnatcatcher, could shift their ranges in coming decades in response to global warming - shifts that might lead to loss of habitat. A companion study on a national level by the Audubon Society showed that more than half of the 305 birds studied shifted their ranges by an average of 35 miles over 40 years. The shifts, mainly northward or upslope, could wipe out some bird species entirely or significantly diminish their habitable range.
Orange County has managed to set aside a variety of wilderness areas for preservation, but that is far from the end of the story.
A 2008 estimate by county planning officials put the amount of undeveloped habitat in Orange County at 190,066 acres, including the dwindling coastal sage scrub plant community. Another 11,800 were expected to be developed by 2020. From 1998 to 2008, the county developed about 34,000 acres of natural habitat.
A 37,000-acre reserve area, the Nature Reserve of Orange County, was approved in 1996; a companion reserve of about 33,000 acres in south Orange County, much of it on Rancho Mission Viejo, won federal approval in 2007.
Not only global warming, but wildfire, itself possibly stoked by warmer temperatures and more frequent drought, threatens to alter forever the character of the county's native scrublands.
Large swaths of preserve area have been torched in recent fires.
An estimated 90 percent of the Nature Reserve of Orange County burned over the course of 14 years. Habitat managers worry that too frequent burnings could permanently alter the composition of the county's native lands.
And while the plants are adapted to periodic wildfire, too much can converting what was once a landscape bursting with scents, colors and native flowers into monotonous expanses of non-native weeds.
About 90 percent of Chino Hills State Park burned in last year's Freeway Complex Fire. Parks officials, however, say they plan to try to replant native trees in the park to help nature along in its recovery.
As many as a million trees and native shrubs could be planted in Chino Hills and San Diego County's Cuyamaca Rancho state parks over 10 years. The planting, to be paid for by private businesses, will begin modestly, with 25 trees at Chino Hills in an April 25 Earth Day event.