Areas of Special Biologicial Significance

What’s an ASBS?

In an effort to protect and restore ecologically sensitive ecosystems along the coast, California created a 34 “Areas of Special Biological Significance” (ASBS) spanning the length of the coast from Redwood National Park in Del Norte County to La Jolla in San Diego County.  The designation was intended to bring special protection to fragile coastal biological communities by strictly limiting or prohibiting discharges of point source waste and requiring non-point source pollution to be controlled the “extent practicable” before it reaches an ASBS in order to preserve natural water quality conditions.

In 2003, a State Water Board study discovered rampant disregard for the discharge prohibitions for every coastal ASBS.    Despite the ban on discharges being in affect since the mid-1970′s, only five dischargers had received exceptions necessary to discharge into protected ASBSs.  A comprehensive study of each ASBS revealed 2,500 actual or potential discharge locations throughout the network of ASBSs with 1,654 potential violations, the majority of which were direct discharges.  The sources of discharges into ASBSs varied from the small storm drains in residential communities (41%), to municipal/industrial storm drains (16%), non-point sources (storm water draining from stairs, sidewalks, or ramps) (12%), and point sources discharges (1%).  Each discharge contributes to the pollution of some of California’s most valuable and fragile ecosystems and prevents the complete preservation of these areas nearly four decades after their creation.


Coastkeeper advocated for the prosecution of illegal discharges into the Irvine Coast ASBS in Orange County in the fall of 2000. In November of that year, the Santa Ana Regional Board issued a cease-and-desist order (CDO), Order No 00-87, to The Irvine Company, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Laguna Beach Unified School District, and the California Department of Transportation requiring each to comply with the waste discharge prohibition into the Irvine Coast ASBS (Crystal Cove).

The decision prompted the State Water Board to fund a statewide survey of all each ASBS to assess the type, number and volume of these illegal discharges.  This survey discovered at least 1,654 discharges to be potentially in violation of the discharge prohibition.  In October 2004, the State Water Board issued letters notifying high threat ASBS dischargers that they must cease discharging or apply for an exception to the Ocean Plan.  As a result, water quality in the Irvine Coast ASBS is closer to preservation for the fragile coastal biological communities living in Crystal Cove and the attention of regulators has finally shined on the 34 coastal treasures dotting the beautiful California coast.

To date, the action brought by the Regional Board at Coastkeeper’s urging has been the sole enforcement action of ASBS discharge prohibitions brought in California.  Recently, the American Bar Association has weighed in on the controversy in an article discussing our enforcement action here.  Our action helped to create a path for enforcement of critically important environmental regulation to be applied equally to parties discharging into California’s most precious and sensitive marine environments.

Recent Activity

The State Water Board is currently reviewing the applications for General Exceptions from the Ocean Plan in order to continue discharging into ASBSs nearly 30 years after the discharge prohibition.   The State Water Board argues that special conditions on the discharges will mitigate the negative impact the pollution will have on the ASBS and will result in overall water quality improvements over time.  Coastkeeper has maintained a consistent message that ASBS discharge prohibitions are clear and should be enforced against dischargers polluting these coastal sanctuaries.  To stay informed on the actions of the State Water Board click here. For more information, read the Draft Environmental Impact Report, our latest comment letter, and the California Coastkeeper Alliance comment letter.

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