H. David Nahai begins his third term as chairman of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board resolving to push governments and industry to cut pollution levels and rehabilitate regional waterways

If you have any smarts, you won't step foot in the water. At least that's the common perception about Santa Monica Bay, and one that H. David Nahai is determined to change.

Nahai was just elected by his fellow board members to an unprecedented third one-year term as chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is responsible for the water quality of both the region's subterranean aquifers and its rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies.

Just last month, the board took a big step toward cleaning up the Los Angeles River, and thus Santa Monica Bay, by requiring cities to completely eliminate any trash escaping into the river from their storm drains.

The regulation is the first major "Total Maximum Daily Load," or TMDL, limit that the board must adopt under a consent decree to clean up the region's surface water bodies. Under the program, the board must calculate how much contamination a water body can assimilate each day and then set discharge limits based on that figure. Ninety-two such limits must be set in the region.

The trash regulation has raised howls of protest from city officials who claim it will be far too expensive to enforce. Business groups, too, fear it is a portent of what is to come when the board adopts regulations regarding metals, sediments and other contaminants.

A Iranian native who was schooled in England, Nahai came to the United States when he was 26 for a master's of law in international commerce at UC Berkeley. He decided to stay in the States and now runs a boutique commercial real estate law firm in Century City. He was appointed to the water board in March 1997 by former Gov. Pete Wilson, and was re-appointed by Gov. Gray Davis to a four-year term ending in 2004.

Question: Why did you go ahead with the strict Los Angeles River trash regulation when by the board's own staff estimate it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars for cities to implement?

Answer: We are trying to be very sympathetic to the cities and what they need to do to comply. But I think that what we have to bear in mind is that what we did was give the cities approximately 14 years to do what it is that they should have been doing all along.

Q: What about the complaint from the Building Industry Association of Southern California that the zero limit has no scientific basis, which sets a bad precedent for future regulations?

A: The fear that, because we adopted a trash TMDL at zero means we are going to adopt a zero standard with respect to other pollutants, is completely unfounded. With other pollutants, there have been years of research done to determine how much of a particular chemical a water body can assimilate.

Q: So why zero for trash?

A: Let me put it this way, if you are driving in your car and you toss out an empty Coke can and a police officer stops you, are you able to say, "Now, wait a minute, don't give me a littering ticket because I have an allotment of 10 Coke cans?" How about five Coke cans? How about six Styrofoam cups? When it comes to litter, a water body cannot assimilate it. There are photographs all over the place of the magnitude of the trash problem we have in this area.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say that the board is not adequately weighing the costs of its actions, including last year when it adopted regulations requiring water runoff to be contained at the site of much new development?

A: There is nothing I would like better then to have a much closer dialogue with the business community as a whole, and the building industry in particular, about measures that have been taken and measures that need to be taken so we can manage our growth. But as for the (runoff regulations), they had previously been adopted in Florida, Texas, Calabasas not exactly hotbeds of environmental radicalism. What we did was nothing new, nothing revolutionary.

Q: Do you expect future limits for contaminants, such as heavy metals and sediment, to be as controversial as the one for trash in the Los Angeles River?

A: We must proceed to adopt the other TMDLs, and it is conceivable that others could be controversial.

Q: So just how bad is the water in Santa Monica Bay?

A: Santa Monica Bay is fairly safe. However, it has become standard procedure that you never swim within a certain distance of a storm drain, and you don't go swimming anywhere in the bay within two or three days of a major storm.

Q: Do you swim in the bay?

A: Only in dry weather and never within three days of a storm. I like Venice Beach. I like Santa Monica and I like some of the Malibu beaches but I never swim at Surfrider. And that is one of the premier surfing spots in the world. It's visited by 2 million people a year, yet it constantly gets failing grades for water quality.

Q: Is that one of the reasons you are so passionate about this topic?

A: All of us should collectively stop and ask ourselves, "When we advertise Los Angeles to the world, what do we have aside from Hollywood and Disneyland?" Is it not the image of a beautiful pristine ocean and wonderful beaches? And if that image is tarnished, I really believe that is shameful for all of us.

Q: But what about the economics of it?

A: I would like the business community to be much more cognizant of the fact that, if we do something for the beaches, it's not just that we are taking care of the seal population. We are taking care of a $2 billion coastal industry that is going to suffer badly if we don't do something about making sure that our beaches are attractive to tourists.

Q: But, still, how do you calm the business community, which is concerned about this torrent of regulations coming down from your board?

A: I own a small business. I meet payroll every two weeks, just as everybody else does. I've got to look at my bottom line just as everybody else does. So I empathize with that need to meet that bottom line every day, to have a certain amount of profitability on a daily basis. But at the same time, if we were able to step out of the constraints of that and look at the needs of society at large, I think that many of the businesses would agree that the couple of steps we have taken are in everybody's best interest.

Q: Do you drink tap water?

A: Yes

Q: What is the board doing about the other major quality issue in the news: chromium 6 contamination in San Fernando Valley groundwater?

A: We have played an active but seemingly quieter role. Recently our board sent out something like 200 letters to various sites that may have chromium 6 contamination, which starts a process of investigation.

Q: Do you have an opinion on the controversy of just how much chromium 6 is the safe level for drinking water?

A: The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment did a study that came to the conclusion that the optimum level of chromium in water is 2.5 parts per billion, with .02 ppb for chromium 6. On the other hand, we have California law that is at 50 ppb. It is incumbent on us as a society to conduct additional testing and investigation in order to arrive at the proper standards. It appears to be somewhere between 2.5 and 50 for total chromium.

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