Resolve Lawsuits and Cooperate With EPA to Clean Beaches


For three decades, cities throughout Los Angeles County have not complied with federal regulations requiring the elimination of pollutants found in storm drains, the biggest threat to water quality in California.

Whether it's motor oil, battery acid or just soapy water from washing a car on the street, such runoff is the leading cause of pollution in coastal waters the main reason for the closure of beaches and the posting of warning signs for swimmers and surfers, particularly after rain storms, when drains overflow with trash and pollutants.

Keeping pollutants out of storm drains would go far toward reducing pollution in our local water bodies.

In Los Angeles County, most storm water runoff flows into three waterways: Ballona Creek, which empties into the ocean at Marina del Rey; the Los Angeles River, which flows into Long Beach Harbor; and Malibu Creek, which ends at Surfrider Beach. There are also hundreds of smaller storm drains along the coast.

Yet public officials have pretty much dragged their feet on the issue, resorting to the courts rather than adopting much-needed measures to clean up dirty beaches, rivers and streams.

The main obstacle, of course, is money.

Cities and municipalities claim that water regulations would cost up to $54 billion and require the building of costly new treatment plants, or rebuilding existing ones such as the 72-year-old Hyperion Treatment Plant in El Segundo, to collect and clean runoff.

Environmental groups scoff at those estimates, saying they are exaggerated, but even for simple retrofitting the numbers are compelling especially at a time when cities have to make significant cuts to balance their budgets.

The stickiest issue revolves around several legal decisions including one in which 22 Southern California cities were turned down in their claim that the Environmental Protection Agency had violated the Clean Water Act by adopting new pollution limits for waterways.

The cities were squabbling over the EPA's pollution limits, known as "total maximum daily loads," or TMDLs, that cover a laundry list of pollutants that include plastic, metals and bacteria.

California's 509 impaired water bodies are expected to have 1,200 TMDL standards put in place by 2012. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has estimated that it will cost $330 million to implement a host of TMDLs over a 10-year period.

In a second lawsuit, 47 cities in Los Angeles County and the County Board of Supervisors teamed up to sue the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board, claiming that its requirements are too costly. A judge suspended the lawsuit last year and state and regional water boards have appealed the decision.

The finger pointing and litigation speak volumes about the inability of federal and local government to come to terms in establishing workable environmental standards. While the EPA is notoriously inflexible in its rule-making, there seems to be minimal cooperation among local municipalities. Several inland cities have balked at the pollutant limits, claiming that beach cities should be held liable for pollution in their own backyards.

The contentiousness covers a range of complicated issues. Environmental group Heal the Bay has complained, for example, that the EPA's pollution limits for fecal bacteria in Santa Monica Bay are fundamentally flawed because there is no direct link between the health risks of swimming in sewage-contaminated fresh water and E. coli. City officials also have complained that adopting standards for one pollutant, such as metals, could have an effect on other pollutants, an issue the EPA has not examined.

This sort of squabbling can drag on for years, which is no way to help clean the beaches.

Actually, there seems to be a fair amount that the individual communities can do on their own.

Both the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District have implemented low-cost programs to reduce the amount of pollutants flowing into the sewer system. Those include stiffer enforcement of litter laws and diverting trash at the entry to storm drains, basically at curbside. Other common treatment methods include detention basins, sand traps and swales that sift runoff before it enters a waterway or storm drain.

Laguna Beach, with its 50 storm drains, has started to control runoff by installing simple drain filters and screens that cost $100,000 per drain (half from city funds, the rest from federal grants). Other devices that mechanically separate trash, sediment and debris from storm water before it flows into rivers or oceans can run as much as $500,000 per unit.

Such costs would likely be prohibitive in many municipalities, especially larger ones. Which is why the ultimate solution involves working with EPA administrators out of court in reaching a consensus on how to proceed. That's in the best interest of all parties concerned, including the public.


Proposal: Blocking trash, bacteria, metals and other pollutants from ocean water

Obstacles: Not enough money, piecemeal plans

Cost: $330 million

Time Frame: 10 years

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