LA water board's pollution control plan assailed

A proposal to limit bacterial pollution in the Los Angeles River was criticized today by environmentalists who decried its slow implementation and city officials who railed against its costly requirements.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board released a plan to require cities to reduce the amount of bacteria in urban runoff in the L.A. River that has been fouling the coast near Long Beach for more than 150 years.

Written comments filed by the dozens of cities and government agencies that feed storm water to the river channel picked apart the pollution control plan on dozens of points, while Heal the Bay blasted the program as too slow.

"Long Beach cannot afford to wait 20 years for improved water quality,'' said Mark Gold, president of the environmental group.

Bell Gardens City Manager G. Steve Simonian said the clean-water rules would cost upstream cities $5.4 billion to implement, and are "being proposed to compel `aggressive' action to `restore' the entire river, to enable people to swim in this mostly concrete-lined flood control channel, much of which is fenced to control access.''

Simonian said Bell Gardens and other upstream cities "are implementing budget cutbacks, hiring freezes, layoffs and program reductions'' and cannot afford to implement the bacteria reduction, which he called an "unfunded mandate.''

Caltrans, meanwhile, contends it should not be required to reduce storm water runoff to the river because its highways, maintenance yards and park-and-ride lots "do not appear to be a significant source of pathogens in urban drainage.''

According to the state's transportation department, homeless encampments next to freeways are cleaned out quickly, and do not pollute the river with bacteria.

The cleanup plan is "complicated and cumbersome,'' Caltrans' water pollution compliance officer, Joyce Brenner, wrote.

The City of Los Angeles' response states that significant bacteria grows in the river itself, as opposed to bacteria-laden water flushed into the flood control channel, and is a significant source of pollution that needs further study.

Enrique C. Zaldivar, director of the Bureau of Sanitation, also argued that measured pollution violations at the river's mouth do not mean that all the upstream cities are violating water laws. And he said a city should not be found in violation if unexpected bacterial blooms occur after a city has taken all possible management practices.

Heal The Bay's Gold argued that upstream cities should be required to take aggressive steps, such as implementing a residential downspout program that would ask homeowners to capture all rainwater from downspouts and store it in rail barrels, for use on gardens or lawns.

Similar recommendations are in the water board's plan, which has been excoriated by the dozens of municipalities in the L.A. River watershed that would have to pay to disinfect drain water runoff, and take steps to prevent trash and stormwater from flowing into the channel.

The pollution control effort began in 2005, under state and federal laws that require the water board to set up pollution limits for the river as it feeds the federally-protected Pacific Ocean.

The water board is collecting public comments on its proposed bacteria limits, and released the first batch of reaction today.