Southern California environment news and trends

9th Circuit decision resolves little in struggle over how to control stormwater in LA County

Stormwater Initiative - 1

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The Hansen Spreading Grounds, south of Pacoima, stretches 120 acres and provides water to more than 200,000 people each year. The grounds absorb storm water, where it is restored and then reused in homes and businesses.

Environmentalists got a win at the 9th circuit court of appeals last week, in their odyssey to hold L.A. County responsible for pollution carried into the sea by its stormwater. Regardless of whether that court decision sticks, it's a reminder that the issue of how to control coastal runoff isn’t going away.

Los Angeles Waterkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council brought the Clean Water Act case five years ago. They argued that stormwater runoff has exceeded pollution standards measured by the county’s own instruments, and since that violates the permit regional water regulators issued to the  county, the county is in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Since then the case has bounced up and down through federal court like a yo-yo; it was argued at the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

This time around, the 9th Circuit panel has sided with Waterkeeper and the NRDC. The appellate court is sending the dispute back down to a district court judge, who’s now responsible for deciding the county’s penalty and the remedy for the pollution.

The environmental groups heralded the ruling, calling it a turning point.

“Stormwater runoff is the number one source of pollution in Los Angeles' rivers and beaches and L.A. County is the largest discharger of stormwater,” said Liz Crosson, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “Holding L.A. County responsible for its pollution and working with them to find region-wide solutions is the biggest victory we could imagine.”

But county authorities said they’re disappointed.

“We view this as another legal skirmish in a case we thought had been resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Gail Farber, Chief Engineer of the Flood Control District and Director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works. “It is unfortunate that this case continues to divert public resources away from the work of improving water quality in the L.A. region.”

Farber said that the appellate court’s ruling relies on an argument that has been rejected before.

One thing that’s changed in the years since the court dispute began is that environmental groups and the county have advocated for new pollution controls that, if implemented, could set a national example.

Last winter, the county and the flood control district (they’re technically separate entities) proposed to charge property owners for a program they called “Clean Water, Clean Beaches.” That program was designed to fund, in part, “low-impact development” or “green infrastructure” – mechanisms that trap rainfall as close to where it falls as possible, to filter it for future use.

Environmentalists supported the premise of the program, but lobbied for more accountability in the way money would be distributed for runoff control efforts.  Large property owners, including school districts, criticized the formula by which the county intended to charge them.

County supervisors sent the program back to the drawing board. It’ll be retooled before it’s presented to supervisors again.

Environmental groups have shown no sign they’re going to drop their efforts to hold the county to Clean Water Act standards. For its part, the county says it’s weighing its options about whether to appeal the court case. The longtime adversaries may be closer philosophically on how to keep coastal waters clean, but the costly legal battle rages on. 

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