County faces water cleanup

It may cost up to $137M to remove high amounts of selenium, a naturally occurring element, from Upper Newport Bay.

December 11, 2009|By Brianna Bailey

High levels of a chemical element known to cause deformities in birds have been found in Upper Newport Bay. State water quality officials have ordered Newport Beach, the county, and several cities that sit upstream from the estuary to pay millions of dollars to fix the problem.

Preliminary estimates put the cost of taking measures to prevent high levels of selenium from leaching into Upper Newport Bay at $42 million to $137 million.

One option for cleanup involves diverting groundwater runoff into the sewer system, instead of letting it flow into the bay.

“We’re basically trying to develop some long-term cleanup plans to deal with selenium in the watershed area,” said Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer for the Regional Water Quality Control Board.


The state agency oversees water quality testing in the bay.

“It’s very difficult to remove from the water, and there’s not really any established treatment technologies that can cost-effectively remove selenium from the water,” Berchtold said.

Newport Beach, Orange County, the Irvine Co., the Irvine Ranch Water District and several Orange County cities including Tustin, Santa Ana and Irvine would have to foot the bill for the project.

Newport’s share of the tab would be about 6% of that, said Newport Beach Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, who sits on the Newport Bay Executive Watershed Committee. The committee includes officials from the County of Orange, the Irvine Ranch Water District, the Irvine Co.; Tustin; and Lake Forest.

The committee is trying to find cheaper ways to lower selenium levels in the bay, like promoting more eco-friendly irrigation practices.

The committee also hopes to get some extra leeway from the water quality board on how much selenium is permitted to be present in the waters of Upper Newport Bay, since it doesn’t seem to be causing any problems for wildlife in the area, Gardner said.

The Upper Bay is home to several species of protected birds.

“Nobody is at all suggesting that we don’t want to treat the selenium, but we want to treat it in the smartest way possible,” Gardner said.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element. Trace amounts of the substance are part of the cellular function of most animals, but large amounts can be toxic to wildlife.

High levels of selenium caused many migratory birds to die at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, in the San Joaquin Valley, in the 1980s.

Selenium also caused deformities in bird embryos and hatchlings at Kesterson.

Groundwater runoff from about 154 square miles of Central Orange County drains into Upper Newport Bay.

Selenium that is already naturally present in the soil seeps into the bay as a result of groundwater pumping and irrigation practices.

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