The Regional Water Board Must Address L.A.’s Runoff Problem

This week, two of California’s leaders made major announcements regarding the state’s water challenges. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti released his 2019 Sustainability Plan, calling for the cleaning and capturing of stormwater, the region’s number one source of surface water pollution. He further advocated for its use as a local water source and aims to capture 150,000 acre-feet per year by 2035. Similarly, Governor Gavin Newsom presented his Executive Order calling for an assessment of water quality in our aquifers, rivers, and beaches, and emphasized the use of multi-benefit, natural infrastructure and regional approaches to help solve the state’s water problems. Both announcements are good news, but proper enforcement is vital for addressing our water challenges.

Los Angeles is known for its iconic waterways that include beautiful beaches and a 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 up to $278 million in health costs and up to 993,000 cases of gastrointestinal illness annually

Today, NRDC urged the Newsom Administration to encourage the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (L.A. Regional Board) to address this serious public and environmental health threat. The permit that is supposed to address this issue is known as the Los Angeles County Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit (MS4 Permit). A new report by NRDC shows that this permit has been barely enforced, so we are calling on the Newsom Administration, who inherited this problem, to urge the L.A. Regional Board to:

  • Create a strong and enforceable MS4 Permit for the L.A. Region
  • Enforce MS4 permit violations whenever they arise

Our report found that the L.A. Regional Board is not adequately addressing the number one source of pollution in our surface waters: urban runoff. We identified 2,079 unenforced water quality violations in less than five years, proving that not only is the current MS4 Permit exceedingly weak from an environmental and public health perspective, it is not being enforced in a meaningful way.

Because we examined only bacteria limits in three watersheds, it is likely these violations are just a snippet of the total violations occurring in the region. Perhaps more astonishingly, none of these 2,079 violations were enforced by the L.A. Regional Board, even though they were identified in permittee reports submitted to the Board. Put another way, the L.A. Regional Board regularly received data directly from permittees highlighting their violations and yet did nothing about it. Our report also examined enforcement since municipal stormwater permitting began in 1990 and found few enforcement actions overall in that 27-year period.

The 2,079 violations we identified occurred under the current MS4 permit, which was recently found invalid by the Orange County Superior Court.The Court found that the Regional Board did not conduct the proper economic analysis for certain permit requirements. This ruling, and NRDC’s report finding thousands of unenforced violations, demonstrate that the L.A. Regional Board is failing to do its job. 

With a new Governor, a new Secretary of California EPA, and new leadership at both the L.A. Regional Board and the State Water Resources Control Board, there is hope. This new leadership must prioritize enforcement and pollution prevention with a strong permit that will help clean our waterways and keep people safe. The State and Regional Boards have a toolbox full of enforcement actions at their disposal, and the authority to use them. The Boards must use these tools to protect our waters, beaches, and aquifers from pollution that sickens people. 

Voters in Los Angeles County have already stepped up. They recognized the threats posed by stormwater pollution and passed Measure W in November 2018. The Measure will raise approximately $300 million annually to fund projects that address stormwater pollution on both the watershed and city level. The Regional Board is also currently working on a new permit, which should focus on strong pollution limits and enforceability. Taken together, there is a tremendous opportunity to address this major public health and environmental concern, and it is the L.A. Regional Board’s mandate to do so. We look forward to working with the Regional Board to fix L.A.’s runoff problem so that L.A.’s Sustainability Plan and the Governor’s Executive Order can go from a promise to a reality.

About the Authors

Corinne Bell

California Water Analyst, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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