CITYWIDE — Environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay and City Hall have found themselves at odds over a proposal to strengthen controls on toxic materials and bacteria flowing through municipal storm drains.

The proposal is an update to current regulations on stormwater runoff that have been in place since 2001. They are supposed to be updated every five years.

Heal the Bay and other environmental organizations are accusing a coalition of 62 cities, including Santa Monica, of working to weaken the regulations by crying poverty.

They’ve begun an online petition to rally supporters to speak up for the stronger proposal, which is up for public comment until noon on July 23.

“When you go to the beach, we’re advocating for a permit that will help you so that you don’t get sick,” said Kirsten James, water quality director with Heal the Bay.

City officials say that characterization is “disingenuous,” and doesn’t describe the full implications of the higher bar set by the proposed permit.

They are working furiously to get their thoughts on the 120-page permit and its additional 400 pages of clarifying attachments in before the deadline, and don’t think that the matter can be boiled down to an online petition with any accuracy.

“As a Heal the Bay member, I’m disappointed that they put out an ad in that kind of language. I don’t think that it’s telling the true story,” said Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment at City Hall.

Right now, City Hall — one of the “dischargers,” in permit-speak — must obtain a permit that requires it to stay under certain limits called Total Maximum Daily Loads for six substances that flow from urban areas and into Santa Monica Bay or Ballona Creek.

The new permit could increase that significantly to include upwards of 30 substances, which would mean a significant expansion in the amount of testing required.

It’s unlikely that even Santa Monica, which has invested millions of taxpayer dollars in infrastructure to clean up urban runoff, could comply with the permit, Kubani said.

If found to be in violation of the permit requirements, City Hall could end up fighting lawsuits from third party organizations like Heal the Bay, something that would ultimately hurt efforts to protect the marine environment.

“Putting in a permit that no one can comply with is not going to benefit Santa Monica Bay or clean water because it’s going to basically take everything away from focusing on cleaning up the water and spend a lot more money and time in court,” Kubani said.

Even without the court costs, meeting the new requirements would cost a lot more money than City Hall has on hand.

Santa Monica voters have already agreed to put two fees on parcels to address pollution from stormwater, but it’s not nearly enough to comply with the proposed regulations, Kubani said.

“What they’re asking citizens of the community to do is create regulations that will hurt them in the long run,” Kubani said, referring to the petition. “In order to meet the regulations, we’re going to have to cut back other city services because we don’t have the funding to do it.”

Members of the L.A. Permit Group want to make it possible to qualify under the permit if they prove they are employing “best practices” to improve the quality of the water, something environmental groups feel is toothless given that cities don’t have to meet the requirements overnight.

“It’s not like tomorrow you push a button and everything needs to be clean,” James said. “(The permit) sets up a time schedule for municipalities to do the work.”

Getting approval for simply developing a plan for success doesn’t cut it, she said.

“A plan is only a plan. You need to see what happens in reality, because you want to make sure that at the end of the day the standards are met and people can go to the beach and not get sick,” James said.

Cities feel like the deck is stacked against them, Kubani said.

The comment period on the proposed permit is quickly expiring, and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has refused to extend it despite pleas from municipalities.

Cities had plenty of time to respond to the proposal both in sessions with staff and the board as well as in writing, said Sam Unger, executive officer for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“Certainly we feel that we have made appropriate revisions in the tentative drafts based on the comments from cities as well as the county as well as the (nongovernmental organizations),” Unger said. “Where comments were found to have merit, we made those changes.”

Kubani doesn’t have a lot of faith that the board or its staff will respond to cities’ needs.

“My guess is that this is going to go through as written,” Kubani said.

ashley@smdp.com

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