bulldozer sewage beach.jpg

When The Eco Zeitgeist Changed

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Clean Water Act -- National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)
Year: 1972
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Douglas Campbell

In a previous Laws That Shaped L.A. column, Heal the Bay water quality director Kirsten James nominated the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments as having made a significant impact on life in and around Los Angeles -- as well as far beyond.

Those Amendments are known far and wide under the more familiar moniker, the Clean Water Act and its influential precursor, California's Porter Cologne Water Quality Control Act. (Read the Laws That Shaped L.A. column.)

As James said here: "This Act is extremely important in protecting our nation's [water] bodies."

Without the CWA, for example, fetid sewers in South Los Angeles and across town would waft the smell of rotten eggs. Malibu Surfrider Beach would remain a polluted scourge instead of a point break paradise. And off the coast, there would be more metal in our nearby Pacific than at Wacken Open Air festival.

"Without the Clean Water Act, we'd be close to where we were back in 1972," James said in the piece. "Hopefully, rivers wouldn't be catching on fire like they did back then - which was one of the instigators of the Clean Water Act -- but I think things would be in pretty bad shape relative to what we're seeing today."

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Douglas Campbell read the Laws That Shaped L.A. column featuring James. Campbell -- along with Regula Campbell -- is a Principal at the firm, Campbell & Campbell. The duo work as environmental architects, landscape architects, planners, public artists and USC adjunct professors.** (Read a list of their projects here.)

Douglas Campbell agreed with James regarding the extraordinary and ongoing importance of the Clean Water Act -- as well as that importance of likewise consequential environmental legislation from forty or so years ago such as the Clean Air Act. (Read, "How Los Angeles Began to Put Its Smoggy Days Behind.")

"Without the legislation of the `70s we would be in a much more dangerous place than we are now. We are in enough trouble. Basically with respect to nature, we broke it and now we own it," Campbell says. "But without this change in thinking and change in values which has been nurtured by these laws, we would be in a much worse place."

Delving deeper in the Clean Water Act, Campbell cites one portion of the legislation as being particularly transformational -- to the professionals in his various fields and to all of us in our interactions with our environment.

This 1942 photo shows a section of the city's story drains. The photo, from the Herald-Examiner Collection, was apparently from an article about a WWII-era proposal to turn the storm drains into air raid shelters. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The section of the Act that Campbell highlights? The advent of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES and related legislation to regulate "non-point source" pollution.

As the U.S. EPA website explains: "The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States. Point sources are discrete conveyances such as pipes or man-made ditches. Individual homes that are connected to a municipal system, use a septic system, or do not have a surface discharge do not need an NPDES permit; however, industrial, municipal and other facilities must obtain permits if their discharges go directly to surface waters."

This post from American Rivers further explains how polluted runoff fouls water bodies and how the NPDES discourages that from occurring.

"Most of us don't think about 'urban stormwater' or 'polluted runoff' until we notice flooding from a recent storm covering our roads and parking lots," American Rivers' Jeffrey Odefey writes. "But polluted stormwater runoff from our rooftops, roads and shopping centers pollutes our streams and rivers across the country."

Slowly but surely, Campbell says that NPDES and the mandates of the Porter Cologne Act have led municipalities to care more about holistic environmental issues.

"The local and regional agents of water -- the pollution regulators and the supplies, the Department of Water and Power, the Flood Control District, the County of Los Angeles and the State -- needed to recognize the need to deal with this in a comprehensive way," Campbell says. "Urban runoff and urban stormwater management has become a topic that environmental design professionals, civil engineers, landscape architects, developers and others have to respond to in ways that are fundamentally changing our City's landscape."

A healthy landscape, Campbell says, requires multiple and comprehensive efforts. "Landscape is not just about one thing," Campbell says. "It's not just about water quality. It's not just about habitat restoration. It's not just about human uses. It needs to be all of that combined so that it is more than the sum of those parts. There is a sense of integrity created that can be very compelling."

Campbell cites a pair of recent Los Angeles Times articles that contained the seeds of what he considers to be promising news. In this piece, valley residents receive free "rain gardens" - or furrows, berms and native plants in lieu of grassy lawns. And in this piece, L.A. County officials ponder collecting from parcel owners $300 million annually and using the income to decrease wasteful run-off.

Douglas Campbell says: 'With respect to nature, we broke it and now we own it.' An oil-soaked duck, in 1988, from the Sepulveda dam basin area. Photo by Mike Mullen from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Articles such as the above become more prevalent as change becomes more prevalent in Los Angeles, especially, Campbell says, during the past five to seven years. Natural habitats are reappearing, bio swales and storm water detention basins and native plant revegetation projects, occurring. "The scale and the amount of public interest and public infrastructure being created is beginning to have a significant impact on our surroundings," Campbell says.

The contemporary zeitgeist has of course played a large role in these sea changes. Laws often follow worldviews. But in this case, Campbell says that having existing laws on the books first was vital.

"We are required to do things that we might have done in the past," Campbell says, using the 'we' to signify his profession and his region as a whole. "But now it is written into city ordinances. The amount of the area that needs to be restored or the amount of water that needs to be retained, etc., is mandated."

Enough small changes have the potential to lead to much greater, larger-scale change. Thanks to NPDES, Campbell says, this potential has grown.

"We will have this network of, this connective tissue, this pattern, beginning to reveal itself. We are just beginning to see it in diverse places throughout the city and the region," Campbell says. "This is creating a new kind of landscape, a new ecology, which will be appreciated and understood emotionally as well as intellectually, environmental integrity will no longer be an abstraction. People will see the beauty of it, the truth of it."


**Doug and Regula Campbell and Jeremy Rosenberg are among the USC students, faculty and staff members involved with the Earth Sciences Communication Initiative. The group is co-organizing with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ClimatePalooza 2013, a climate change-related event being held this Thursday, January 24.

Top photo: To combat a sewage spill circa 1980, a bulldozer makes a dam at Will Rogers State Beach. Photo by Dean Musgrove from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped LA or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Promoting sewer bonds in 1920. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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