Trash piled up on Santa Monica Beach after a rain storm last year. (File photo)
Trash piled up on Santa Monica Beach after a rain storm last year. (File photo)

WASHINGTON D.C. — A Santa Monica-based environmental nonprofit will go to the Supreme Court Tuesday to settle the question of who is responsible for treating polluted stormwater that flows from the local watershed into the ocean.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and L.A. Waterkeeper — formerly Santa Monica Bay Keeper — will argue that the Los Angeles Flood Control District is shirking its duty to clean the water that flushes illness-causing bacteria into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

The Flood Control District, however, maintains that the responsibility to cleanse the water belongs to everyone in the area, and that the cost of the infrastructure needed to remove the bacteria from the water is far too costly for the district to cover.

The NRDC and Waterkeeper originally brought the case in 2008. A district court sided with Los Angeles County, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, a judicial body known for its liberal tendencies, held that the flood control district needed to make the investment to clean the water.

It came to that conclusion by counting water passing from manmade flood channels in one part of the river to the rest of the river as a point source of pollution, effectively holding the county responsible for pollution created by the cities upstream of its monitoring stations.

It flies in the face of how stormwater has been regulated for two decades and would put the district on the hook for tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements, said Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

“Right now, the way we’re approaching stormwater quality, both the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers have dozens of municipalities along with the county and Flood Control District. All of them have a responsibility to improve the quality of the runoff that generates from their jurisdiction,” Hildebrand said.

The environmental groups, however, feel that the time has come for the county to make substantive improvements to the water quality in the ocean and say that the county is overstating the cost of the infrastructure changes needed to get the job done.

“It’s high time for Los Angeles County to join the ranks of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Portland and many other communities in promoting green infrastructure — things like green roofs, rain barrels and rain gardens, more green space and permeable pavement,” wrote Steve Fleischli, an attorney for the NRDC. “These proven techniques result in less polluted waterways and less human misery caused by stormwater runoff.”

Rainwater flushes chemicals and pollutants from the roofs, lawns and roads in Los Angeles into the storm drains, which then guide the water out to sea. That pumps arsenic, cyanide and fecal bacteria into the water which can negatively impact those that work and play in the water.

There has been a lot of progress in fixing the water quality over the past 20 years, Hildebrand said, and the solution is not to put the burden solely on the shoulders of the Flood Control District.

“We have a long way to go, but we have to recognize that we’ve made a lot of progress,” Hildebrand said.

Kirsten James, water quality director with Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay, says there hasn’t been enough progress because people are still getting sick.

“It’s the number one source of coastal pollution,” James said. “It hasn’t been effective enough.”

And it may get harder to improve water quality rather than easier.

The county recently adopted a new stormwater permit called the MS4 that, in the eyes of environmental groups, loosened regulations on cities and, at the same time, reduced accountability on polluters.

There is a bright spot on the environmental horizon, however.

Voters will consider the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure, a program that would charge the average homeowner $54 per year to put $270 million toward stormwater projects throughout the county.

Heal the Bay contends that the fee would actually be a money-saver for Angelenos because it would solve the stormwater problem sooner rather than later, allowing the county to avoid potentially costly fines for pollution violations.

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