Los Angeles County Water Pollution and the U.S. Supreme Court

In their Oscar-winning song, Burt Bacharach and Hal David got it all wrong:

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head
But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red 
Cryin's not for me 
Cause I'm never gonna stop the rain by complainin'
Because I'm free… Nothin's worryin' me...

Red eyes—well, infections known as pinkeye—actually are among the many health problems those raindrops can cause when they fall on urban environments and pick up pollution, turning into a toxic brew. Polluted stormwater runoff also can cause more serious health consequences, such as gastrointestinal, respiratory and neurological illnesses.

The good news is that, rather than complainin' or worryin', we can do something—some simple and cost-effective things—about one of the worst sources of water pollution in America: stormwater runoff.  We might not stop the rain, but we can stop it from turning into a pollution problem.

As much as 10 trillion gallons of stormwater a year drain from roofs, roads, parking lots and other paved surfaces—untreated—into our oceans, rivers, lakes and other waterways, many of which serve as drinking water supplies as well as places of recreation.

Increasingly, cities large and small are taking meaningful action to treat this toxic mix of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, lead and fecal bacteria. Sadly, one of our most populous regions, Los Angeles County (with more than 70 miles of spectacular beaches), is lagging behind.

It's high time for Los Angeles County to join the ranks of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Portland and many other communities in promoting green infrastructure—things like green roofs, rain barrels and rain gardens, more green space and permeable pavement.  These proven techniques result in less polluted waterways and less human misery caused by stormwater runoff.

That's why NRDC will be arguing Tuesday (Dec. 4) in the U.S. Supreme Court in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper, a case we brought to hold the County to its commitment to prevent pollution of waterways there, including the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.  

Toxic plumes created by urban runoff pollute these local rivers and have been detected miles off the Southern California coast—sometimes at levels in gross violation of limits established under the Clean Water Act. Throughout the Southland, this pollution every year sickens between 620,000 and 1.4 million people—while causing annual economic losses in the tens of millions of dollars (in medical bills and lost productivity).

This problem, of course, transcends Los Angeles County, with its population of 10 million people. Because the adverse health consequences created by stormwater pollution are most concentrated in urban areas, hundreds of millions of Americans have a stake in their local governments getting this right. Indeed, more than 80% of us now live in metro areas with a population of 50,000 or more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to fouling our drinking water supplies and making recreational areas unpleasant and unsafe, toxic stormwater runoff harms fish and wildlife, kills native vegetation and contributes to stream bank erosion. It’s bad for the environment and bad for our health.

In the case we’ll argue Tuesday, we are asking Los Angeles County to stop shirking its responsibility and start doing right by the residents of Southern California—and the region's millions of annual visitors. In resisting our efforts, the flood control district is dramatically overstating the cost of adopting green infrastructure and reducing water pollution in the region.

By doing the right thing, Los Angeles County officials, like many of their counterparts around the country, would learn that embracing green infrastructure is not only good for public health and smart environmental policy; it will actually save money, increase water supplies, reduce flood risks and clean up local beaches and rivers.

Now that would be progress worth singing about.


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