Cleaning up storm water, urban runoff getting more expensive

This evapo-transpiration system simulates a natural condition by allowing runoff to flow through specially designed filter media, which both remove pollutants and support plant growth. The runoff eventually flows into the storm drain system.

By Nick Diamantides
Staff Writer

Nowadays, taxpayers even have to pay for rainfall. It’s not the rain itself that costs money, but the pollution it washes into the storm drain system has to be reduced, and that costs money.
On Monday, Barbara Munoz, Signal Hill’s director of public works, met with the Signal Tribune and explained what the city– and all other cities in the Los Angeles Basin– will have to do in the next few years to reduce the amount of pollution carried into the ocean by rainwater and urban runoff.
Munoz noted that the federal Clean Water Act was amended in 1987 to include storm water discharge from municipalities, construction sites, and industrial sites. “That set the framework for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to start issuing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits,” she said, adding that later the EPA authorized the State of California to administer the NPDES program.
That program is now administered by the state Water Resource Control Board, which has nine local regions. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has jurisdiction over Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
“Signal Hill operates under the county NPDES permit,” Munoz said. “The permit requires the development and implementation of a program to reduce the pollution in storm water and urban runoff. She explained that Signal Hill’s program has six components: industrial and commercial facilities; public agencies; ilicit connections and discharges (meaning that residents and businesses cannot dump any kind of non-storm water liquids into the storm drain system); development planning; development construction; and public outreach. “When you see a construction site being graded, you see straw bags in front of the catch basins,” she said. “Those are erosion-control bags that keep the sediment from going into the storm drain system.” She added that the city’s public outreach is aimed at educating the general public about how the storm drain system works. “The gutters are for storm water only, not for any other discharge,” she said.
Munoz explained that it is not illegal for a person to wash his or her own car in front of their house, but commercial car washes are required to recycle their water instead of discharging it into the storm drain system. Munoz, however, stressed that homeowners should carefully follow directions when applying herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to their lawns to avoid having those substances wash into the storm drain system due to heavy rainfall or too much irrigation. “Rain will carry all that, and even animal droppings, into the system, which eventually empties into the ocean,” she said. “Spilled motor oil, chemicals, trash and many other pollutants end up in the ocean, and we want to educate our residents so that hopefully they will be more diligent in cleaning these things up before they are washed into the storm drains.”
Munoz added that a few years ago the city began implementing a low-impact development (LID) policy. “It’s just trying to clean the first three quarters of an inch of rain runoff from industrial and commercial facilities,” she said. “We do that by either having the water infiltrate into the ground or filtering the water through vegetation and/or gravel before it goes into the storm drain system.”
Munoz noted that the water board is now requiring municipalities to measure the amounts of heavy metals and other pollutants being carried into the storm drain system and find ways to comply with maximum allowable levels of those pollutants. She explained that some monitoring stations have already been set up to measure pollutants entering Los Cerritos Channel and soon they will also be installed along the Los Angeles River. At the Los Cerritos sites, water samples are taken and analyzed in a laboratory. Munoz said that, after the amounts of specific pollutants are determined, local municipalities will have to figure out how to reduce their percentages to an allowable level.
The problem with that is nobody knows how much it will cost to clean up the storm water, and the cities will have to dip into their own general funds to pay for it. “We are basically at the tip of the iceberg right now,” Munoz said. “The monitoring for storm water going into Los Cerritos Channel is costing $250,000, and that is being shared by six or seven cities.” She said the monitoring of water entering the Los Angeles River is expected to cost much more. (All storm water and urban runoff from Signal Hill goes either to Los Cerritos Channel or the Los Angeles River.)
Munoz noted that the cities are up in arms over the fact that the state is requiring them to clean up storm water but providing no funds for the very expensive process. She added that some cities along the Los Angeles River are beginning to install catch basins and screens that remove trash from the storm water. “We are looking at installing filters at those sites to reduce the amount of pollutants, but that has not happened yet,” she said. “Signal Hill is very active in trying to clean up its storm water and urban runoff, but as the requirements get more stringent, they also will become extremely expensive, and, at this point, I don’t think any of the cities know how they will be able to afford to pay for the required monitoring and filtration systems.”

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