Stormwater capture rules gain new urgency as drought lingers

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Under the pressure of a lingering drought, state regulators could approve a sweeping set of rules governing stormwater that for the first time aims not only to keep Los Angeles County rivers, streams and beaches clean, but also to save water in an effort to recharge dwindling local supplies.

Regulators call the rules a groundbreaking paradigm shift in managing dozens of pollutants that together make up the largest source of coastal pollution in Southern California. But environmental groups that have been fighting over L.A. water quality for decades say a revamped municipal separate storm sewer system permit (known to insiders as the MS4) may not go far enough to accomplish either goal.

Every new permit stirs long-running tensions among regulators, public agencies, and critics of pollution enforcement. When the Los Angeles County Regional Water Quality Control Board approved this one in 2012, it was no different, drawing more than three dozen petitions for change. Now many parties the stakes are higher because of the lengthening drought.

The management system that applies to Los Angeles County storm system operators departs from past practice in two ways.

Under the new rules, the city and county of Los Angeles, as well as 84 other cities, are working together within watersheds to plan for stormwater, treat its pollution under 33 separate standards, and in some cases, capture it. Together they develop more than a dozen watershed management plans, including around areas of the Los Angeles River and the San Gabriel River.

“There’s been an unprecedented amount of collaboration amongst the municipalities,” says Water Board executive officer Sam Unger.

Environmental groups, including L.A. Waterkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, say the framework has potential. But they have raised concerns that provisional plans don’t do enough to mandate rainwater capture, and, in some cases, reward cities for doing less.

“If it required compliance with water quality limits and mandated stormwater retention wherever feasible, it could really play a critical role in reducing our reliance on imported sources of water,” says L.A. Waterkeeper’s executive director Liz Crosson. “We can’t afford not to make the connection between those issues wherever possible right now.”

The state is offering some money for stormwater infrastructure, but funding isn’t guaranteed. That leaves exact compliance timelines somewhat in doubt. To NRDC attorney Steve Fleishli, that’s problematic. “This is just building more delays into that process of protecting our waterways and the people who use them,” he says.

Regulators deny these concerns. But they acknowledge that transforming the landscape will cost money. The state has authorized millions of dollars in proposition money and emergency drought-related funding, specifically for storm water management. Still, estimates for costs in L.A. County alone rise above a billion dollars.  

“We understand that funding is a challenge,” Unger says. “If it turns out they can’t implement the plan because the funds are available it will revert back to the previous permit.”

If cities and the county fall behind on the new watershed-focused standards, they say there’s an alternative compliance path: the traditional standards for water quality could still apply.

Few of the stormwater capture plans anticipated by this permit will be in place by this fall. If there is an El Niño, that's the next opportunity for serious rain to begin falling again. 

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