Stormwater, also called urban runoff, remains the leading cause of beach-water pollution throughout the country despite regulations that have aimed to clean up the problem for more than two decades, according to environmental reports.
In Los Angeles County, contaminants flow through an intricate system of storm drains, trickling down from industrial zones, residential lawns and auto-repair shops, entering one city after another.
The pollution, including toxins, heavy metals and lead, eventually empties out into the ocean, contaminating fish and affecting public health, while leading to reports that some parts of California have some of the most polluted beaches in the United States.
Amendments to the federal Clean Water Act were adopted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 1990 to further regulate stormwater discharges associated with industrial activities and municipal storm sewers.
The amendments essentially made it so that municipalities across the country were required for the first time to start obtaining permits in order to allow stormwater discharge.
Last December, the State Water Resources Control Board began issuing stormwater permits, known as MS4s, with a set of new regulations. Permits are renewed about every five years, and regulations will only become “more stringent and costly,” said Steve Myrter, Signal Hill director of public works.
“That’s the trend,” he said during a June 18 presentation to the Signal Hill City Council. “This most recently adopted permit … is essentially the most complex permit to date, and it is probably in the nation at this point. It really is going to be very costly to implement, and we’re told that this is really the trend, that L.A. County, San Diego County and Ventura County are kind of leading the way in the nation in terms of where the US EPA wants these stormwater permits to go.”
In the state, the area that tops the charts for the most pollutants is Los Angeles County, where urban runoff traverses through approximately 500 miles of open channel, 3,500 miles of underground drains and an estimated 88,000 catch basins.
Storm drains are also designed to prevent flooding and flush runoff to the ocean as quickly as possible, making filtration and monitoring even trickier prospects.
In an effort to resolve such a complex problem, many cities that share watersheds have opted to join forces under a new county-wide permit adopted last December by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Cities had until June 28 to give notice to the regional board of whether or not they would be following one of three pathways for compliance.
While the State sets overall policy, regional boards have authority to issue stormwater permits with more stringent regulations, Myrter said.
Under the regional board’s newly adopted permit, many cities have chosen to work together by forming multi-city committees for monitoring stormwater pollution while following comprehensive enhanced watershed-management programs.
These programs may include increasing street sweeping, investing in “green infrastructure,” enforcing low-impact development standards on new construction and building projects that retain rainwater and/or other water that can be used to recharge groundwater aquifers. The rationale is that pollution can be more easily prevented upstream at the source rather than be cleaned up at various points along the river.
This alternative pathway allows cities to bypass heavy fines for not immediately complying with the permit and extends the deadline for compliance but still requires cities to eventually meet stormwater-pollution limits. The regional board’s permit applies to the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Los Angeles County and 84 incorporated cities, excluding Long Beach, which has its own permit with the State.
Some city officials have said they applaud the regional permit for providing “flexibility” to allow municipalities to coordinate with each other to comply with the State’s new rules, but they add that the financial burden on cities remains a large concern as an “unfunded mandate.”
“What these new plans do is require that we really focus in on water-quality programs. I think [the programs are] very worthwhile, but they’re going to be expensive,” said Signal Hill City Manager Ken Farfsing, speaking last month to the City Council, which has approved giving the regional board notice that the City would start working on the watershed programs.
Signal Hill is responsible for a portion of stormwater that enters two watersheds: The Los Cerritos Channel and The Lower Los Angeles River. Costs for conducting enhanced watershed-management programs for these areas alone is expected to total $1.3 million, however Signal Hill is only required to pick up about $62,300 of the costs.
Farfsing added, however, that Signal Hill is lucky in that, due to the city’s hilly geography, all of the drainage flows directly into Chittick Field, also known as Hamilton Bowl, a stormwater retention basin that is being rebuilt into a sports park.
Once the water enters the basin, it flows into the Los Angeles River and then Long Beach. He said the City might have the option of adding “auto samplers” that cost $70,000 apiece to install to test the water that flows into the basin.
In other cities, however, it’s harder to figure out where the pollution is coming from, he said, adding that figuring out the pollution source and who is going to pay for cleaning it up will likely be a tough debate.
“Our drainage actually originates here and enters Long Beach,” Farfsing said. “There are communities where drainage just passes through… like South Gate, where drainage may come from Huntington Park, run into South Gate and run into Compton.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council has already filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County regarding stormwater pollution, he noted.
Even though the United States Supreme Court threw out the case earlier this year and declared that the county isn’t responsible, the fear is that cities may now be vulnerable to litigation from environmental groups or even other cities since pollution levels will be reported on a regular basis, he said. “This is a huge mess,” Farfsing said. “We’re in kind of uncharted territory.”
Signal Hill city staff notes that the City is currently budgeting more than $755,000 annually for compliance with required stormwater programs that represents more than four percent of the City’s entire general-fund budget. Future expenditures are expected to be more than $1.5 million annually, as the City is required to start construction of costly stormwater capital improvements.
After a study is completed within 12 months and final plans are submitted to the regional board by June 2015, cities will primarily be incurring costs for watershed monitoring over the long-term, which could add up to “tens of millions of dollars,” Myrter explained. “We’ll know a lot more about what costs we’re looking at in respect to monitoring over the next 10 years,” he said.
There have been some efforts to help fund the upgrades and infrastructure to clean up stormwater pollution in other ways.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Initiative, which aimed to raise more than $200 million per year for water projects through an annual parcel “fee” charged to all property owners within the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.
After backlash from the public, however, the county supervisors agreed to put the proposed measure on hold and are now looking at continuing outreach about the plan and deciding whether to put it on the ballot for the next election.
Monetary objections aren’t the only complaints about the regional board’s new regulations. Environmental groups, including Heal the Bay, the Natural Resources Defense Council and L.A. Waterkeeper have filed a petition against the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board’s new permit.
The environmental groups aren’t against provisions that encourage cities to collaborate to reduce stormwater pollution, but they believe that following such programs shouldn’t equate to the cities being in compliance with regulations.
“The concept of watershed planning makes a lot of sense because you are able to combine resources and look at the entire watershed in an efficient way of managing the pollution problem,” said Kirsten James, director of water-quality policy for Heal the Bay. “At the end of the day, we need to ensure water-quality standards are met and beneficial uses are protected.”
Officials for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, however, said that the new regulations will still follow strict timelines and will implement rigorous stormwater-monitoring protocols.
Ivar Ridgeway, senior environmental scientist of stormwater permitting for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the enhanced watershed-management plans will allow cities to tailor permit requirements to their individual needs, adding that the new programs are designed to bring about cost savings as well.