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Who's responsible for L.A.'s stormwater pollution?

A bicyclist rides along a path running along the cement-lined Los Angeles River in Los Angeles.
A bicyclist rides along a path running along the cement-lined Los Angeles River in Los Angeles.
AP Photo/Ric Francis

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The water cycle is pretty simple - rainfall flows down mountains in streams and rivers, through cities in pipes and culverts, to end up in the ocean.  But the Los Angeles water story is more complicated than that.  L.A.’s water comes from nine watersheds, flowing through miles of interconnected pipes, channels and drains to the ocean.  

Along the way it picks up pollution, channeled into the waterways from storm drains, sewers and along the concrete-lined L.A. river.  By the time it reaches the sea it’s a fetid soup of bacterial, metal, oils and human and animal waste.  So who’s responsible for the cleanup?  The county, who manages the storm sewer system through the flood control district?  The more than 80 individual cities, each with their own flood control system that contributes to the overall mess?  

The municipalities share a permit with the county to operate the stormwater system, issued by the LA Regional Quality Control Board. The county has been sued by environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council for not taking responsibility for cleanup.  The county maintains that what pours out of the stormwater system is not their doing; the system only picks up and conveys pollutants, rather than creating them.  The case has made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, where arguments are being heard today, but that may not be the end of the story.  

The county wants to levy a parcel tax on the 2 million property owners along the stormwater system, with the proceeds paying for programs aimed at capturing and reclaiming rainfall. No matter what the court decides, stormwater runoff is a critical problem for Los Angeles. How can we change the way we use our water system to both maintain this precious resource and ensure cleaner oceans?



Mark Pestrella, assistant director, L.A. County Public Works Department

Steve Fleischli, director, Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program