Now or Never: It's Time for the State Board to Require Stormwater Capture and Help California Mitigate the Drought
Credit: Council for Watershed Health
Anyone who's driven outside Los Angeles has seen the effects this drought has had on our landscape: hillsides are brown, farm fields have been fallowed, and reservoirs are critically low. It's a stark reminder that the Golden State is, in fact, a drought state; and in the midst of the worst drought in more than 1,000 years, we need to be using every drop of water as wisely as possible.
One of the ways to combat this drought (and future droughts) is to capture stormwater, which in its most ambitious form could provide up to 253, 437 acre-feet of water for Los Angeles County after every inch of rainfall. That's nearly 40% of the City of Los Angeles' annual water use captured in just a single one-inch storm event.
California is at a critical moment in deciding how we'll deal with stormwater in Los Angeles ... and beyond.
Next Tuesday, June 16, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) will consider whether or not it will uphold the current stormwater permit for Los Angeles County, which was last renewed in 2012. Local storm sewer systems - also commonly referred to as MS4s - regulated by the 2012 Permit allow bacteria, trash, metals, and other harmful pollutants to be collected and discharged into the rivers, lakes, and beaches surrounding Los Angeles County. In fact, stormwater is the number one source of surface water pollution in Southern California. The MS4 permit is supposed to be a regulatory tool to help stem that pollution.
In our Untapped Potential of California's Water Supply report last summer, we detailed a host of solutions that make economic sense, as well as environmental sense. Specifically, with an aggressive statewide effort to use water-saving practices, reuse water, and capture lost stormwater, we found that California could be saving up to 14 million acre-feet of water per year - that is more than the amount of water used in all of California's cities in one year!
Therefore, we not only have the ability to maximize the water that the State already has, but also, as a result of our water-saving efforts, can help California communities build a more self-reliant water supply so that they will be more drought-resistant in the future - now all we need to do to realize this potential is to actually start implementing these 21st century solutions.
The State Board's decision on the 16th could be crucial in moving these solutions forward. The 2012 Los Angeles County MS4 Permit presents a critical opportunity for both the State Board and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to create a new, better path forward to ensure that both our water quality and water supply challenges are addressed in a sustainable and holistic manner.
In order to augment local water supplies and simultaneously address water quality concerns, the 2012 Permit allows municipalities to develop and carry out their own stormwater management programs whereby they commit to implement stormwater capture projects.
Unfortunately, the Permit fails to promote such a multi-benefit approach to stormwater management because it provides "safe harbors" for cities discharging stormwater in violation of water quality standards even in situations where they are not required to capture and retain stormwater. For example, a municipality can develop a self-customized plan for managing the stormwater discharges from its sewer systems. Under this plan, it can select its own measures and practices for controlling urban runoff, and oftentimes, municipalities can simply propose to implement a type of project and thereby be deemed in compliance with meeting the water quality standards of the 2012 Permit. To make matters worse, for some municipalities, the types of projects they propose do not even need to be stormwater capture-related for them to receive the safe harbor benefits.
The 2012 MS4 Permit, however, can and should be improved to become the means to implement a true comprehensive approach to stormwater management for not only Los Angeles County but also for the rest of California - one that achieves compliance with water quality standards, as the law requires, while also increasing local water supply, providing flood mitigation and improving local communities and habitats. But, if the State Board upholds the 2012 Permit without removing the illegal safe harbors, it will miss the most critical opportunity to help Los Angeles communities implement meaningful stormwater capture projects and establish a comprehensive drought response approach that is truly necessary to ensure a sustainable water future for California.
The 2012 Permit, as it currently stands, contravenes the State's goals to maximize opportunities to overcome drought challenges and build resiliency in the face of climate change. What is perhaps most concerning is that the State Board has explicitly directed all regional water boards to use the 2012 L.A. County MS4 Permit as the model for their MS4 permits going forward. By upholding the 2012 Permit in its current version, not only will the State Board be continuing to ignore federal and state legal requirements to ensure water quality protection, it will also be failing to acknowledge the connection between this Permit and the need to implement multi-benefit solutions to improve California's drought resiliency, both in the short- and long-term.
The potential water savings from capturing rainfall in just the County of Los Angeles area is enough to demonstrate that stormwater capture can serve as a vital and necessary component of California's water future. The State Board should therefore integrate its drought mitigation efforts with its stormwater management approach under the 2012 Los Angeles County MS4 Permit. This is especially important in response to the current historic drought and the increasing challenges of climate change. The State Board has emerged as a leader on drought response, and this Permit should not be the exception.