A new report is accusing the regional board that regulates the quality of Los Angeles’s water of not taking enough action against cities that pollute coastal waters and inland watersheds.

When it rains in a city like Los Angeles that is largely paved over, the water passes over streets and sidewalks, collecting bacteria, trash, metals, herbicide and other pollutants, eventually draining into rivers and the ocean. Santa Monica State Beach has historically been heavily polluted from stormwater runoff and has the highest levels of bacteria of any beach in the area. Such elevated levels of bacteria can cause gastrointestinal illnesses in humans and hurt the aquatic ecosystem.

But while Santa Monica has taken steps to address the issue in recent years by installing an underground storage tank to capture runoff from the Santa Monica Pier storm drain and diverting stormwater from the Pico-Kenter drain, the recent Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report alleges the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has failed to get other cities to take similar steps.

Corinne Bell, an analyst with the NRDC’s Santa Monica office, said the regional board has not undertaken any enforcement actions addressing more than 2,000 bacterial violations from urban runoff since it started using its current regulatory framework, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permit, in 2012.

The board can take a range of actions against cities, including issuing fines and penalties. Since the board began regulating bacteria levels in 1990, it has only issued four fines, Bell said.

“These thousands of violations and the accompanying lack of enforcement demonstrate that water quality in the region is suffering, and the regional board has failed to address the problem,” Bell wrote in the report.

Cities can reduce runoff by capturing stormwater like Santa Monica has done or by planting trees and urban greenery to absorb runoff before it makes it to the ocean, Bell said. Last year, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure W, a tax to fund projects to capture and clean up stormwater.

But Bell and Annelisa Moe, a water quality scientist at Heal the Bay, contend that other cities have delayed such projects because the regional board has not applied enough pressure when they exceed allowable pollution levels.

“The board’s lack of enforcement has really created a culture of noncompliance throughout the Los Angeles region,” Moe said. “We’re really not seeing any improvement in water quality.”

The board disputes the claims in the NRDC report, however. Executive officer Renee Purdy called it an “unfair characterization” of the board’s enforcement actions.

When a city or industrial facility pollutes a body of water, Purdy said, the board typically issues formal enforcement orders that set a strict schedule by which the city or facility must complete water quality improvement projects. If the offender doesn’t comply with that schedule, she said, the board may issue financial penalties. It was the most aggressive water board in the state in issuing penalties and liability, Purdy added.

“Our 2012 permit is the strongest across the state and if not in the nation. We’re one of the only regions that has incorporated numeric limits on pollutants,” Purdy said.

While the report claims the MS4 permit’s interim deadlines to complete water improvement projects have allowed cities to drag their feet, Purdy said they allow cities to show the board that they are implementing projects on schedule.

Bell and Moe said the next version of the MS4 permit, which will be adopted in 2020, should be stronger, more enforceable and give polluters less leeway on interim deadlines.

“It’s really important that the board plays their role as a regulator so they can ensure public and environmental health is protected,” Moe said. “The way we see that having a permit with the requirements that are simple and reflect federal standards.”


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