WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has unanimously sided with Los Angeles County in its fight against a lawsuit over pollution from urban storm water runoff that flows into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers after heavy rains.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court in a narrow holding Tuesday that the federal appeals court in San Francisco wrongly ruled for environmentalists in their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Flood Control District.
The lawsuit was filed in 2008 by the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica and the Los Angeles Waterkeeper (formerly Santa Monica Baykeeper). The environmental groups say levels of bacteria from animal feces and toxic metals frequently exceed water quality standards, a violation of the Clean Water Act.
Last year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the county was liable for violating the Clean Water Act, saying that polluted water flowing from “concrete channels” into the natural part of the lower rivers should be classified as discharges and therefore subject to restrictions.
The Supreme Court said the Ninth Circuit’s opinion was based on a false premise. The water flowing from one “concrete” section of the river to another section cannot be classified as a “discharge” of pollutants. Ginsburg said “no pollutants are ‘added’ to a water body when water is merely transferred between different portions of that body.”
“Our work is not done,” said Gail Farber, chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. “The fight for clean water is ongoing and remains a collective priority for the district and our many water quality stakeholders within the region. The district remains committed to working with our partners in support of clean water, healthy rivers, lakes and beaches.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is backing a parcel tax to help fund projects to capture and treat storm water before it reaches the Santa Monica Bay. Residents have until Jan. 15 to file an objection. If a majority of property owners don’t object, the board can approve a mail-in ballot to be sent to all property owners.
“We’ll continue to seek to hold the Los Angeles County Flood Control District responsible for cleaning up its water pollution,” said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s national water program. “Unless something changes, storm water pollution will continue to sicken up to 1 million people in Southern California every year, while local government turns a blind eye and avoids basic infrastructure solutions that will protect people, preserve water quality and increase water reserves.”
Editor-in-Chief Kevin Herrera contributed to this report.