Local Leaders Are Failing to Protect L.A.’s Water

Los Angeles is known for its iconic waterways that include beautiful beaches and swimming holes, and our concrete river. Every day, an estimated 100 million gallons of runoff contaminated with various pollutants flows through L.A.’s massive storm drain system to foul our rivers, creeks and, ultimately, our coastal waters. During a storm, the amount can swell to ten billion gallons or more. This runoff is often polluted with trash, bacteria, metals, pesticides, and oil. Alarmingly, stormwater pollution in the L.A. region results in hundreds of millions of dollars of health costs and up to hundreds of thousands of gastrointestinal illness annually

Trash, regulated by the MS4 permit, is still a problem in the region.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Pease, Heal the Bay

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Los Angeles could capture its stormwater before it becomes polluted and treat it as a valuable water source instead of a liability, all while building projects that supply other important benefits to Angelenos—benefits like better air, reduced heat island, and access to green space. L.A.’s municipal storm sewer system (MS4) is one of the largest in the U.S., and the number one source of surface water pollution in the region. The system is regulated by a Clean Water Act permit; this permit couldrequire or at least encourage the prompt development of projects that fix our stormwater problem and deliver the benefits mentioned above. 

Unfortunately, the draft MS4 permit released this summer falls woefully short of its goals and legal requirements. The draft permit is perplexingly similar to the current permit, which has been unsuccessful in terms of actual project implementation, has been beleaguered by litigation, and which even the Regional Board acknowledged has degraded water quality in Los Angeles.

Almost exactly two years ago, Angelenos proved that stormwater is a major concern for them—enough of a concern to pay for fixes out of their own pockets. Voters passed Measure W, providing over $250 million in direct funding for stormwater projects every year. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Regional Water Board is burdening Angelenos to yet again stand up against stormwater pollution, this time by forcing residents to demand a different, more accountable MS4 permit. Over 25 groups representing residents throughout L.A. have already come forward demanding a strong permit; hopefully the Regional Board will actually hear their concerns.

The recently-released draft permit, nearly three years overdue, is out for comment until December 7th. Concerned residents can submit written comments directly to the agency; Angelenos can also attend upcoming meetings and give public comment directly. The next opportunity for public comment will be on November 12, 2020. For help with talking points, you can sign up for Heal the Bay’s Take L.A. by Storm.

Los Angeles deserves a strong, measurable, enforceable, and accessible MS4 permit, otherwise its waterways and public health will continue to suffer. It’s sad to see that the Regional Board is again putting the onus on Angelenos to ensure access to clean water. But the good news is it’s not too late to shape the region’s next permit and address its biggest source of surface water pollution.

About the Authors

Corinne Bell

Program Attorney, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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