The Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments on whether Los Angeles County or individual cities should be responsible for cleaning polluted water before it reaches the Pacific Ocean.
The Los Angeles County Flood Control District channels storm water in concrete channels to prevent flooding in 85 cities and 104 unincorporated communities in L.A. County. The system consists of 500 miles of open channels and 2,800 miles of storm drains that collect runoff and then discharge the water into a lower portion of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers that eventually flow into the ocean.
At issue is whether the Flood District should be held liable for transporting polluted water into the ocean under the Federal Clean Water Act.
“The Flood Control District is a conveyance, it does not create the pollution,” said Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the Flood District.
In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council and L.A. Waterkeeper, formerly the Santa Monica Bay Keeper, sued the flood district, alleging that it knowingly and willingly discharged contaminated water back into the river and that pollutant levels often surpass the legal limits.
“[The district] owns and operates more miles of storm drains than any other entity,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of L.A Waterkeeper.
Crosson said pollutants such as copper, zinc and fecal bacteria make their way to the ocean with every storm and people end up sick or beaches have to be closed. The nonprofit wants the flood district to be responsible for reducing the harmful chemicals.
If the district loses the case, it would need to spend billions over the next few decades on green infrastructure—a set of storm water capturing techniques that minimize flow into the ocean, such as rain gardens, a shallow depression planted with native species that absorb water, and permeable asphalt.
Although the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled in favor of the flood district in 2008, that same year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, and ruled that the Flood District violated the Clean Water Act when it allowed detected pollutants back into the water.
In June 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
"The fight for clean water and healthy rivers, lakes and beaches is a primary goal that the Flood Control District shares with its many water quality stakeholders, including the NRDC," Gail Farber, the district's chief engineer, said in a statement. "In addition, providing sustainable water supplies and healthy watersheds while reducing flood risk for our communities remains a strategic priority of the District."
Hildebrand said the flood district already works with cities, municipalities and developers to implement programs that reduce storm runoff.
In court documents, the district argues it is not in violation, because it does not create the pollutants in the water that end up in the ocean, but merely collects water that is already contaminated from communities in L.A. County and redistributes it. Therefore, the communities, not the district, should be responsible for treatment of the pollutants.
Additionally, it is asking the court to consider whether man-made concrete channels constitute “navigable waters” as defined by the Clean Water Act and would therefore be outside the law's jurisdiction.
"We recognize the complexity and significance of the questions before the Justices, and are confident that, when the facts of this case are presented, the Court will support [the District’s] position," Farber said in a statement.
The Supreme Court Justices will interpret what constitutes a water runoff discharge under the Clean Water Act.