Federal Court Finds L.A. County Violated Clean Water Act and Polluted Beaches

Chronically polluted Surfrider Beach will be cleaner as a result

LOS ANGELES (April 27, 2010) – The County of Los Angeles violated the federal Clean Water Act when it discharged polluted water into world-famous Surfrider Beach along the Southern California coast, according to a decision issued by Federal District Court. 

The court also found the County liable for illegally discharging polluted water into a marine coastal preserve located in northern Los Angeles County, one of three dozen designated Areas of Special Biological Significance along the California coast.  These court decisions were the result of a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Santa Monica Baykeeper.

“This decision will protect people and the environment along the Southern California coast,” said David Beckman, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s national Water Program. “The County has every reason to be a clean water leader, but it has instead has been a dirty water laggard. There are serious costs to inaction, especially when that inaction makes people sick.” 

In its decision, the federal court agreed with NRDC and Baykeeper’s contention that Los Angeles County has been illegally discharging polluted water into an oceanic Area of Special Biological Significance between Mugu Lagoon in Ventura County and Latigo Point in Los Angeles County, including the popular Surfrider Beach and surrounding waters, in which the state has established a zero-tolerance policy on bacterial pollution discharges during dry weather months. 

The court, however, rejected the claim that the County also violated the Clean Water Act when it discharged polluted runoff into Malibu Creek and the Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and San Gabriel Rivers. Although monitoring in these rivers conducted by the County showed violations of water quality standards, the court found that evidence did not pinpoint the County, as opposed to other dischargers, as the source of illegal levels in those waters.

“This decision will go a long way to protect the health of some of the most sensitive coastal waters and at one of our most popular beaches” said Tatiana Gaur, staff attorney for Santa Monica Baykeeper. “I would like to express my gratitude to the hundreds of Baykeeper volunteers whose hard work made this case possible.”

This lawsuit is the first to enforce California’s prohibition on polluted discharges to designated Areas of Special Biological Significance. NRDC and Baykeeper are asking the court to require the County to take steps that include adopting better pollution monitoring, requiring treatment or redirection of polluted runoff, and implementing green infrastructure measures to reduce or eliminate polluted runoff.

“There are a variety of practicable and low-cost remedies, including green infrastructure techniques such as permeable pavement, cisterns, and other water retention and infiltration approaches that cleanse water and can also supplement local water supplies in the process,” said David Beckman.

In March 2008, NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the County of Los Angeles for violating a 2001 Clean Water Act permit issued by California’s Regional Water Quality Control Board. The lawsuit sought to hold the county accountable to measurably reducing urban runoff, the top source of coastal water pollution in California that sickens thousands of people and fouls coastal ecosystems annually.

Beachwater pollution makes swimmers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders, and other serious health problems. Senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems can be especially vulnerable.

The County plays a special role in assuring that runoff meets water quality standards. The County owns and operates more of the runoff discharge system than any other entity and, through the Flood Control District, play a specially-designated “principal” role in controlling runoff pollution. The County of Los Angeles has repeatedly sued state authorities since 2001, seeking to weaken clean water rules.

This ruling affirms that the County plays a key role in improving water quality and protecting public health and the environment. As a remedy for the violations identified in the court’s ruling, NRDC and Baykeeper will seek a court order requiring the County to reduce runoff pollution levels to a level that protects public health and the environment. 


Case No. CV 08-1467 AHM (PLAx)

Read more about water pollution at David Beckman’s blog.