Inside Cal/EPA  [Printer-friendly version]
October 27, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Mendocino County, California has decided to
test a precautionary approach to stormwater management. Industry
is grousing.]

A Mendocino County [Calif.] plan to integrate the controversial
"precautionary principle" into its stormwater management program will
add expense and complicate the treatment of runoff, some industry
representatives charge. But local government officials and
environmentalists say the pilot project may help the county comply
with increasingly stringent state and regional water board stormwater
rules, and serve as a potential model for other local governments.

The county's attempt to implement the precautionary principle -- a
risk-management approach backed by activists that advocates a more
cautious approach to regulation -- may lead other cities and counties
to test the concept in their runoff management plans, sources said.

Local government officials and members of the Mendocino Partnership
for the Precautionary Principle decided this month to create a pilot
project that integrates the precautionary principle into the county's
stormwater program. Meetings about how to integrate the principle into
the program continue next month, with final project adoption expected
early next year, a local government source said.

If successful, the pilot could become an example for other local
governments, because cities and counties commonly borrow runoff
management techniques from other local governments, the source said.
Local governments anticipate stormwater requirements at the state and
regional level will only get tougher, and using the precautionary
principle may aid compliance, the source said.

Even though it has been approved as a policy in Mendocino County, the
precautionary principle itself is a concept that divides industry and
environmentalists. Activists involved in the partnership say the
principle strengthens risk assessment and public participation, to
essentially integrate the idea that "an ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure." The principle also has been adopted as policy by the
city of San Francisco and the European Union, the partnership's
website notes.

But industry representatives are concerned the principle will spark
unwarranted, unscientific bans of chemicals and industry practices.
Consequently, they are warning local governments adoption of the
principle could be harmful. Industry representatives recently opposed
legislation requiring reduced lead in plumbing fixtures they said
unfairly adopted the precautionary principle.

Stormwater officials are likely to find the only way to truly manage
runoff in a way that exhibits "precaution" would be to capture and
treat all of the stormwater runoff in the entire county, an industry
source said. "Conservatively speaking, [the] county would need to
figure out how to store and treat 2.7 trillion gallons of stormwater
each year," the source said, after figuring out how much rainfall the
county would receive.

Treating that much stormwater would be difficult and very expensive,
the source said.

But the local government source said it will be difficult to say what
will have to be done to stormwater "until they have a better sense of
the precautionary principle, and exactly how one does apply it in this
situation... or to an ordinance."

Meanwhile, an environmentalist said the precautionary principle may
revolutionize public participation in the stormwater program. How
stormwater pollution can be reduced before contaminants enter runoff
could be a widely discussed topic in the public forum, the source

Another environmentalist said ideas based on the principle should be
evaluated on their merits, not on the principle itself. "You have to
look at the substance of an idea. Is it a good idea, is it health
protective, does it make sense?"