Supreme Court Agrees to Hear L.A. River Polluted Runoff Case


Polluted water runs through Compton Creek, a tributary of the L.A. River. Photo by KCET Departures

Because water flows, the question of who is responsible for it and the pollution that ultimately finds its way into our oceans becomes a tricky one to answer. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will have a few things to say about the matter.

Announced last Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on a lower court's decision that found the Los Angeles County Flood Control District responsible for tainted runoff released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers -- a violation of the Clean Water Act.

They agreed to review the case with one question in mind: is water flowing from one portion of a river, through a man-made stormwater control, into a lower portion of the same river, considered "discharge" from an "outfall" under the Clean Water Act?

The county maintains that it isn't responsible for the pollution that finds its way into the stormwater; the network of storm drains and flood waters it manages is only a passageway for pollutants that could have been introduced upstream.

"The Court of Appeals treated the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers as storm drain sewers and not as a rivers. The significance of the case before the Supreme Court, and the position held by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, is that these river systems should continue to be treated as rivers and provided the full protection of the Clean Water Act," said the county in a statement released to the public.

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It further explains in its petition to the Supreme Court that by virtue of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit enacted under the Clean Water Act -- a permit that 84 cities, County of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District holds -- the government effectively recognizes that "certain pollutants present in stormwater and/or urban runoff may be derived from extraneous sources that Permittees have no or limited jurisdiction over" and that Permitees will only be responsible for its own discharges.

The original lawsuit, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Santa Monica Baykeeper in 2008, sought to hold local governments accountable for untreated stormwater runoff that picks up high levels of pollutants ranging from fecal bacteria, oil, grease, and pesticides as it washes over roads, rooftops, and lots on its way to the ocean. According to the NRDC, stormwater runoff is a key contributor to the amount of pollution in our beaches and pose a threat to human health. In winning the lawsuit, environmental groups hoped the county would do more toward improving water quality, public health and the environment.

"There are some really straightforward and cost effective solutions that can address stormwater pollution at its source. There are great examples throughout Los Angeles where the city actually implemented best management practices to ensure that stormwater is kept on site, that it's infiltrated in rain gardens or swales or other similar mechanisms, so that those pollutants being conveyed by the stormwater never actually reach our waterways and beaches. Those are the types of solutions that we would like to see Los Angeles County implement," said Santa Monica Baykeeper Executive Director Liz Crosson, who points to the recently opened South Los Angeles Wetland Park for inspiration.

Supreme Court sessions start in October. Hearings for the issue are expected to be set sometime in the last quarter of 2012.


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