Inside Cal/EPA, 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 said.

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?"