The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board pushed off until next year a rule change that would allow copper and zinc to keep flowing through Chollas Creek.

The board is now also considering a new regulation that could cost businesses in the creek’s 25-square-mile watershed tens of thousands of dollars.

At what ended up being an all-day meeting, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer lobbied the board to scale back a 2008 rule that limits the amount of copper and zinc allowed into the creek.

Those rules were meant to protect marine life, but they were based on inadequate science. Even the board’s chairman, Henry Abarbanel, said the existing metals limits are “unscientific and random.”

The metals limit is wildly expensive: San Diego and surrounding cities said they would have to spend $2.1 billion to comply. If the rules are eased, the city of San Diego alone would save about $880 million.

But the city, which has been working to ease the rules for most of this decade, must wait a bit longer.

The rule change vote was derailed by Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who files lawsuits against businesses that pollute the creek and other San Diego water bodies.

Gonzalez said the Regional Water Quality Board should force businesses to do more exhaustive testing of water that runs off their property into the creek, if they want to take advantage of the relaxed rules.

Several board members, including Abarbanel, jumped on the idea, even though Gonzalez told the board later in the meeting that he did not think the businesses would comply with it.

Even so, the board is now set to consider the more expensive testing requirements at its February meeting.

S. Wayne Rosenbaum, an attorney who represents businesses impacted by the testing requirements, has said that if the metals limit is not eased for businesses, he would advise his clients to move away from Chollas Creek.

If the board ends up imposing new testing requirements, businesses will face a dilemma: Either comply with a water quality rule the board admits doesn’t make any sense, or spend a lot of money on more expensive tests to get around that rule.

Already, by one estimate, it costs $37,000 a year for even relatively small industrial businesses to comply with clean water laws. The new testing would cost about $10,000, thousands more than they cost now, said Ed Othmer, the vice president of the Industrial Environmental Association, a trade group.

“We understand that it is both physically and economically difficult,” Gonzalez said in an interview.

Also at the meeting, a representative of the Sierra Club suggested that the Regional Water Quality Board should order the city to build a new park along Chollas Creek as a form of compensation for avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Abarbanel said he was a fan of that idea but the board didn’t have the power to just order the city to build a park out of the blue. But he and fellow board member Tomás Morales said that since the board fines the city from time to time for violating clean water laws, it might use one of those penalties as a chance to demand that the city build a new park.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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