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Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Santa Monica Bay Pollution

Nonprofit L.A Water Keeper wants the county's flood control district to clean copper, fecal bacteria and other pollutants from storm runoff before it flows to the ocean.

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.

Fred Reardon December 04, 2012 at 02:51 AM
1/2 billion gallons of water +/- flowed out into the ocean over the past few days creating a giant toilet flush effect (stagnant water, bacteria, pollution, etc.). It would be cool if the LA Public Works and Water Districts would start implementing storm water recapturing (aka rain water collection) and work towards solving the problems related to drinking water shortages, irrigation water shortages and polluted ocean water (bacteria laden, trash & Plastic). Who’s tired of getting sick every time it rains and the waves are good?
zachary franks December 04, 2012 at 06:07 PM
The bigger issue is not whether you get sick when you get surfing, you are just an indicator species, the bigger issue, of course, is whether ocean gets and stays sicker in a long slide downward or whether it recovers its vitality.
Marcia Hanscom December 04, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Mr. Reardon ~ sorry to inform you, but NONE of the efforts that water quality groups or government entities are even contemplating will change the fact that you ought not to go in the ocean waves just after a storm (72 hours is the rule, they usually say.) The "water quality fixes" that are being suggested ONLY work for light stormwater runoff and dryweather flows. And even then, there are questions as to what is working, what the proper TMDL standards ought to be and whether or not natural bacteria should be lumped in with the human-sourced bacteria. If you are tired of not being able to surf when the waves are good but the watershed is flowing with pet feces, landscape fertilizer/poisons, pharmaceuticals and more, I can certainly understand it. Maybe a vacation to a location where there are not millions of people living upstream from the surf spot you want to visit would give the experience you want.
Ed December 04, 2012 at 09:31 PM
"Waterkeeper?" Really? I guess the Santa Monica Baykeeper got such a bad reputation for being overly litigious that they decided it was time for a name change. Start the countdown clock for the next name change. Their next name could be environazilitigationkeeper.
Cece Stein December 05, 2012 at 01:03 AM
Right now, as we speak, untreated runoff from the Malibu Colony shopping center complex parking lots and Malibu Road is draining directly through the one storm drain ( previously known as "The Mystery Drain" ), which is now a brand new 18 inch surface runoff drainage pipe owned by the City of Malibu, into the recently restored Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach. We witnessed these flows Sunday ( when the breach occurred ) on site at Malibu Lagoon. This pipe is supposed to be redirected into to the storm water treatment plant at the corner of Cross Creek and Civic Center Way for disinfection and treatment and then Legacy Park. The State uncovered many clay and concrete pipes that were directed into the Lagoon from Malibu Colony homes which are now severed from pouring directly into the Lagoon. The only pipes sanctioned to drain into the lagoon are from the State's Colony Swale and parking lot bio filtered pipes which are not visibly draining into the Lagoon. Oddly, a pipe that is the responsibility of the City of Malibu is pouring large amounts of pollutants into the newly restored and sensitive wildlife habitat. This is the same City that gave the State so much scrutiny and grief about lagoon water being discharged out of the Lagoon and out to sea via a complex, expensive disinfection. Yet, here they are blatantly violating public health and imperiling a sensitive habitat area. Just this past April, the City settled with over $6 million on their Clean Water Act violation.
Wendi Werner December 05, 2012 at 03:14 AM
I can't wait for CeCe to stand up in front of the City of Malibu next Monday night and read this aloud. If you are aware of these facts, it is your duty to report them through the formal process provided by Malibu City as recognized by all formal agencies involved. See you Monday December 10th. :)
Cece Stein December 05, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Hopefully the City of Malibu is reading this right now : ) They have already received a few phone calls from state agencies. I've already done my duty - video on site of the violation as it was occurring. No need to "socialize" at the City meeting. I filled my "being seen" quota for the week. They have my email.
Rolo December 05, 2012 at 06:26 PM
Just wondering if the legal fees will eventually amount to more than the cost of the proposed changes.
Dan April 04, 2013 at 07:27 AM
LA City and LA Cointy are both negligent in the issue of contaminated runoff going into our oceans. Environmental laws often use the words best technology available within reason. Yet Look at the number of businesses close to you where cigarette butts are on the sidewalk from customers, fast food containers and plastic bags on the sidewalk or in the street. In my neighborhood there is no street cleaning at all and I have complained many times of these issues but the city and county do nothing. The attorneys are getting rich fighting over who is responsible while we continue to contaminate the ocean and environment. The US has the most powerful military, we can put a spacecraft on mars, we criticize others like China for their lack of environmental regulations and we continue to dump millions of tons of toxic material in the oceans every year. I see gardeners blowing trash and leaves onto busy streets every week. Those weed blowers are illegal here in LA but Mayor Villariagossa will not let us enforce those laws. He says they are racist and target Hispanics. That is incorrect. They are to keep contaminants from entering the two common modes of transport; the air and the water.

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