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Regional water filtration project in doubt

Various elements are setting back the $22-million effort that aims to reduce the amount of selenium into Upper Newport Bay.

March 14, 2011|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

Editor's note: This corrects the cost of the regional project to filter selenium.

City and county officials have hit some setbacks in an ambitious effort to reduce the amount of selenium, a naturally occurring yet potentially toxic element, that enters Upper Newport Bay.

Because of regulatory hurdles and strained city budgets, a $22-million regional project to filter selenium from creeks and tributaries is now in doubt.

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Scientists have detected the element in bird eggs and fish tissue taken from the Newport Bay Watershed, an area that spans from Orange Hills to Laguna Woods. If enough selenium accumulates in an animal, it can harm reproduction and, in extreme cases, cause embryonic deformities.

But no deformities have been found in this area — a factor cited by Newport Beach and Costa Mesa officials, and others, when they warily eye the project's price tag. Newport's cost would be between $250,000 and $1.5 million, according to city officials.

"It's too soon to make that kind of commitment because we don't like the science," said Councilwoman Nancy Gardner at a study session last week. "We have a lot of questions."

The project, dubbed "Cienega," would be a mostly below-ground filtration system housed in Irvine, near the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Barranca Parkway. It would filter water running through the Peter Canyon Channel, using microorganisms to biologically remove dissolved selenium.

The Irvine Ranch Water District, which has been leading the project, secured a $5.5-million federal grant to build the facility and sought to have other agencies and governments fund the remainder.

The Newport Beach City Council last week indicated that it would not support the project now, and Costa Mesa's may be even more reluctant.

"It's ridiculous that the federal government is holding cities responsible for this environmental issue," said Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece. "Costa Mesa cannot afford to comply."

Even the IRWD, which has completed a successful pilot program, admits that it faces large obstacles.

IRWD spokeswoman Shannon Reed said Environmental Protection Agency regulators have indicated that they'd be reluctant to approve a regional selenium removal program.

Still, some environmentalists support the Cienega program. Others are also deterred by its cost.

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