WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court acquiesced Monday to hear an appeal by Los Angeles County regarding a ruling that would require the county to clean two polluted waterways.

On March 10, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the county’s Flood Control District responsible for untreated stormwater runoff in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

“The Court of Appeals viewed the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers as storm sewers and not as rivers,” said Gail Farber, chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, in a statement.

Initiated in 2008 by nonprofits Santa Monica Baykeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the original lawsuit sought to hold the county responsible for documented violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in Southern California’s rivers and beaches since 2003.

The CWA, enacted in 1948 and amended in 1972, establishes basic structures for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters and regulates quality standards for surface waters, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The CWA deems discharging pollutants from point sources — which include items like pipes and man-made ditches — into navigable waters unlawful unless a permit is obtained.

Though the county was issued a CWA permit in 2001 by California’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, the council and Baykeeper allege it has violated the permit.

“[The 2011] ruling holds L.A. County responsible for their massive water pollution problem,” said Aaron Colangelo, senior attorney with the council, in a statement issued in March of 2011. “For years, the county claimed that it could never be held accountable for its toxic discharges, even if the water were so polluted that it literally caught on fire.”

A 2009 council report found that stormwater runoff was the primary known source of pollution at beaches nationwide — consistent with past years.

To remedy the problem, the council and Baykeeper had hoped to get a court order that would require the county to reduce runoff pollution to levels that would protect public health and the environment.

“There are really straightforward solutions in Los Angeles that can treat stormwater on site,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper. “Potential solutions can include stormwater parks, rain gardens and infiltration basins.”

Crosson said the ultimate goal would be for the county to construct a comprehensive plan to deal with the problems in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

“[The appeal] presents another opportunity to demonstrate the county’s ongoing attempts to avoid responsibility for pollution in Los Angeles,” Crosson said in a statement. “It is time that L.A. County is held accountable for the public health impacts and ecological damage its stormwater pollution creates.”

Oral arguments for the appeal will be held during the Supreme Court’s October 2012 term.

“Water quality is an issue of national significance and one in which municipalities and flood control districts across the nation are working together to address,” Farber said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is presently considering floating a parcel tax on all property owners to avoid being fined as much as $10,000 a day for violating a federal consent decree and to improve the county’s water quality.

“We’re very pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of our case and agreed to hear it,” Farber said.

Steve Fleischli, senior attorney with the council, said he and his co-plaintiffs look forward to presenting their arguments to the court because they believe that the evidence and the previous court rulings will confirm the county’s history of CWA violations.

Said Fleischli: “We want the county to clean up its rivers and beaches, and we’ll fight to address this persistent pollution problem, which affects millions of people who visit and enjoy L.A.’s popular beaches each year.”

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