BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
Officials in 39 Southern California cities breathed a sigh of relief recently when an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered a state agency to suspend the storm water standards it had imposed on the municipalities. The regulations would have required each city to spend millions of dollars to clean up storm water before it was discharged into local rivers and channels that empty into the ocean.
The dispute began about five years ago, when the California Regional Quality Water Control Board, Los Angeles Region issued regulations requiring the municipalities to significantly reduce the percentages of chemicals, bacteria, metals and other pollutants that wash into the storm water system during a rainfall. “Just to comply with the metals requirements for water flowing into the Los Angeles River would have cost the City of Signal Hill about $60 million over the course of 20 years,” said City Manager Ken Farfsing. “To reduce the amount of metals in the water flowing into the Cerritos Channel would have cost another $60 million.” He noted that the city would have to spend millions of dollars more per year to reduce percentages of chemicals, bacteria and other pollutants present in storm water.
In 2003, soon after the Water Board adopted the regulations, a group of local governments, homebuilders and labor unions asked the Board to examine the achievability and the growing costs of compliance with the urban runoff requirements. The group insisted that the Board had not complied with the state law requiring it to consider certain factors before adopting the regulations. The factors include determining whether the standards are reasonably achievable, undertaking a study of the environmental characteristics and quality of the region’s waters, figuring out how the regulations would economically impact the cities, and determining how the requirements would impact the development of housing in the region.
“These regulations are basically unfunded mandates,” Farfsing explained. “It’s a state board telling the cities they have to do certain things without knowing the cost and without providing the necessary funds.”
Experts agree that urban runoff and storm water treatment is more expensive and technically challenging than sewage or industrial treatment due to a variety of factors, including discovering and abating pollutants carried by winds from as far away as Asia, and treating the millions of gallons of water that flow through a city’s storm water system during a heavy rainfall.
Because of the complexities associated with the treatment of urban runoff and storm water, the Water Board exempted those two types of discharges from the water treatment regulations it adopted in 1975. “The original plan was only to regulate sewer treatment and industrial discharges into the rivers, channels and ocean,” Farfsing said. He explained that sewer and industrial discharges were required to have no higher than a certain number of parts per million of regulated substances. “Over time there were new Water Board members and new staff that began applying those numeric standards to storm water,” he noted. “We have been complying, but our concern is that it keeps getting more and more expensive and we don’t know where it’s going to end.”
Because of the increasing costs, several years ago the Los Angeles County cities impacted by the Water Board regulations formed themselves into an ad hoc organization called the Coalition for Practical Regulation (CPR). In 2005, CPR and the Building Industry Legal Defense Foundation (BILDF) filed suit against the state and regional boards on the grounds that the board had not taken the above mentioned legally required factors into account. CPR and BILDF argued that the standards were never intended to be applied to storm water, were not based on sound science, were not reasonably achievable, and would result in unnecessarily costly programs funded by local taxpayers and homeowners.
After delays and legal proceedings, the lawsuit came before Orange County Superior Court Judge Thierry Colaw on February 27, 2008. On July 2, Thierry ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the Water Board to “cease, desist and suspend all activities relating to the implementation, application, and/or enforcement of all standards” it had been applying to storm water treatment. The court order will remain in effect until the Board determines whether those standards can reasonably be achieved, how the standards would economically impact the cities, and how the regulations would affect housing development.
“Local governments will continue to implement their current storm water programs, and we are also committed to working with the state and regional boards on reasonable and cost-effective new programs,” said CPR spokesperson and Signal Hill City Councilman Larry Forester. “The water boards should recognize that all levels of government– local, county, state and federal– have limited financial resources to tackle major water quality problems.”