Trash in the crook of a boom at the mouth of the LA River is a visible reminder of the way stormwater drains through city and county systems toward the coast. It carries with it pollutants like oil, metals, bacteria, and chemicals.
Since it’s raining and we’re under a beach advisory until at least Thursday, it seems worth explaining a little more about why environmental groups are objecting to stormwater rules just passed by the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The board passed the first new regional stormwater permit in more than a decade, an MS4 permit, last month. (MS4 stands for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, which is itself confusing; it just means that storm runoff is separate from waste sewers.)
At that hearing, I watched environmental groups tell the board of their concerns that there would be fewer protections in place with this new “toughened up” permit than without the Clean Water Act at all. I also watched the board members receive this argument in some confusion. But reassured by other people at the hearing, including representatives of L.A. County's Flood Control District, the board approved the rules.
That doesn't mean the fight stopped. Environmental groups had until last week to appeal the permit, and they did: that challenge goes to the State Water Resources Control Board, the statewide bunch of regulators who oversee all the regional ones.
Last week I reported on the county’s outreach efforts on the subject of a parcel tax that would support stormwater controls and programs in LA’s nine watersheds. When I talked to the NRDC’s Noah Garrison about stormwater management generally, I asked him what he thinks is wrong with the water board's new rules.
“In the new permit, if you put in place a series of programs, a series of projects, under a watershed basis, or if you retain water to a certain level, then you are meeting the requirements of the permit whether or not these standards are being violated,” he argues.
In other words, Garrison says there’s a “safe harbor” for polluters – in this case, the county and cities – that could prevent regulators from holding their feet to the fire on the subject of cleaning up pollution. “Even if our waters aren't at levels that are needed for people to go swimming or fishing, then there isn't an enforcement measure that the board can take or citizens can take to make sure that our waters get cleaned up,” he says.
The regional water board is aware of the concerns Garrison raises, but so far has stuck up for the permit’s language. "It’s built in the permit that while they’re working on their long term regional solutions, they still have to keep doing what they were doing so far," regional water board chair Maria Mehranian told me.
At the same time, Mark Pestrella with the county’s public works department said that, yes, the regional water board's actions last month were to a certain extent a leap of faith.
"The county is stepping up and saying, we’ll act as a regional entity," Pestrella says. "We’ll look at this from a regional perspective and we’ll engage those cities in these efforts. That’s the trust the regional board is putting into the county and the larger cities -- and we’re going to engage the smaller cities."
The enforceability of the stormwater permit is no small question. When the Supreme Court heard arguments last month, Justice Scalia thumped the last permit for perhaps being unenforcable (though that wasn't even the question before the Court), and certainly for being confusing. These are big long documents that few people read.
The NRDC's concerns about this current big document demonstrate that the stakes are high for the county's parcel tax proposal. The county says it wants to step up and be a leader. It's under pressure to do just that.