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Don't Bury Your Head In The Sand: Why The Clean Water Act Matters

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Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@losjeremy) Laws That Shaped LA columns spotlight 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
Year: 1972
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Kirsten James

In 1948, having just recently saved the Earth from Nazi and Axis powers domination, the United States set out to save the waters, too.

Only, the arch villain here wasn't Germany -- but instead, that self-inflicted fiend called pollution.

So, the same year as the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency calls the Act, "the first major U.S. law to address water pollution."

Ambitious to say the least, the Act declared: "It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985."

This column couldn't immediately find the reason why that particular year was selected - please contact me if you know. Was choosing 1984 too Orwellian? Choosing `86 too death-slangy?

No matter the reason, suffice to say, thirty-seven years following the passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters was not eliminated.

Enter, then, the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments -- known far and wide under the more famous and familiar moniker, the Clean Water Act.

Thanks to the CWA, many of the water bodies of the United States are by now, cleaner. Los Angeles is home to a number of such success stories -- and many of these stories combine regulation with civic activism with the judicial process, just as the Clean Water Act encourages.

"This Act," Kirsten James says, "is extremely importantly in protecting our nation's bodies." James is the Water Quality Director at Heal The Bay.

Founded in 1985 -- there's that year again -- by the environmentalist Dorothy Green and friends, Heal The Bay now does everything from preparing and distributing beach water report cards to running an aquarium to organizing mammoth coastal cleanup days.

The Santa Monica-based organization's history is entwined with the Clean Water Act. HTB began as an effort -- eventually, wildly successful -- by Green and others to force the City of Los Angeles to follow federal law.

"In 1985, the Hyperion Treatment Plant, which is owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles, was discharging [wastewater] into the Pacific Ocean and that discharge was not fully treated, it wasn't up to standards," James says.

The HTB staffer continues, cataloging the then-woes of the Santa Monica Bay: "Fish had fin rot, dolphins had tumors and dolphins and whales were not as prevalent," James says. "There was a giant dead spot that was described in the Bay, where basically nothing could live. And we had swimmers and surfers who were getting sick from recreating in the Bay."

The latter probably hasn't been eliminated. But the other ills are much improved. As James explains, the cause of the offensive effluent was the Hyperion plant.

Hyperion -- located here and sixty or so years ago named one of Seven Wonders of Civil Engineering in the Los Angeles Area -- used to flow "solid sewage" into the Bay.

For reasons that seem incomprehensible today -- and did to activists and others back then -- Los Angeles asked the federal EPA to waive the Clean Water Act's requirements and allow Hyperion to continue Bay-dumping.

In great part because of pressure rallied by the then-fledgling Heal the Bay, the environmental agency declined to grant the city's request. The end result? "Comparing then to now," James says, "things are a lot healthier in the Bay."

The "History of the City of Los Angeles Hyperion Treatment Plant" webpage -- found here -- manages not to mention HTB. But, more significantly, the page does boast of a 95% reduction in wastewater pollution and cites "partnerships among the public, regulatory agencies, government and discharges that led to one of the great environmental achievements of the 20th Century."

The Hyperion change is far from the Clean Water Act's sole impact in and around Los Angeles. Between the legislation and the advocacy of a range of non-profit watchdog groups and concerned citizens, the Act's local legacy is large -- and we're talking, Blue Whale pod large.

For example: Without the CWA, 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.

State and federal politicians gather at a1968 air and water pollution hearing in Los Angeles. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
State and federal politicians gather at a1968 air and water pollution hearing in Los Angeles. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Regarding the sewer stink: KCET Departures colleague Robert Garcia, of The City Project, wrote here in his Green Justice column about the city's $2 billion settlement with the federal government (et al.).

The settlement, Garcia wrote, was "to improve the sewer system citywide, and to eliminate the persistent and offensive sewer odors that plagued residents for decades in the historic heart of African-American Los Angeles."

The sewer salvo came via a lawsuit filed under the CWA in 1998; the suit was consolidated and settled in 2004 and amended more recently. (Garcia's City Project is part of the settlement.)

Also in Garcia's Green Justice column, the attorney names various related Clean Water Act-induced projects: the South Central L.A. Wetlands Park, for instance, and The Garvanza Park Stormwater Project in Highland Park.

Regarding Surfrider, that classic beach's unhealthful decline plus the standards and responsibilities named in the Clean Water Act led to a successful lawsuit filed against L.A. County by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sana Monica Baykeeper organizations. (Here's a link to the Environmental News Service coverage of the court win.)

And regarding the coastal metals concentration -- recent research by the USC** Sea Grant provides evidence that the Clean Water Act is working.

The Sea Grant study shows that the volume of copper, cadmium, lead and other metals "have plummeted over the past four decades" and are as much as 400 times less prevalent off the coast as during the pre-Clean Water Act era.

As this story notes, "concentrations of metals in the surface waters off Los Angeles are now comparable to levels found in surface waters along a remote stretch of Mexico's Baja Peninsula."

Closer to home for regular readers of KCET.org -- with Departures and Land of Sunshine's regular reporting and special section on the L.A. River -- site visitors will likely recall how the Clean Water Act also played a prominent role during a recent funny-except-it-wasn't episode where the Bush Administration attempted to declare that the River was not navigable.

Had this designation stuck -- it didn't thanks to the kayak-tivism of River Hero George Wolfe -- then the River might have forfeited the many protections that the Clean Water Act provides.

That's because the CWA, according to this EPA summary, "made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under the provisions."

As is so often the case with public policy issues, knowing how to navigate the sometimes choppy bureaucratic waters are often as crucial as a sextant and sonar are to sailors. In a perfect world, industry would hum along and sewage would be properly treated and sentences containing the words "consent decree" would be replaced by sentences wondering how many degrees the water is today.

In short, James is asked, is this forty-year-old legislation -- being celebrated, by the way, October 9 at an event at the Japanese American National Museum* -- really necessary?

Absolutely, the Heal the Bay expert says. "Without the Clean Water Act, we'd be close to where we were back in 1972. 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."

*Edited 9/18: Earlier copy noted the location of the event as City Hall. It will now be at the Japanese American National Museum.

**Jeremy Rosenberg is a USC employee

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, @losjeremy on Twitter, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page

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