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Water Groups Fight for Better Stormwater and Urban Runoff Regulation

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Urban runoff -- the swill of gunky water that accumulates from millions of sources around the city and beyond -- is a tough problem to solve.

Even after more than two decades of regulation, urban runoff continues to be the largest source of pollution to Southern California's waters. Data shows a 170 percent increase in the number of rivers, streams, and lakes that show toxicity; 83 percent of the total miles California's river and streams are impaired; and 96 percent of the total assessed acres of California lakes and reservoirs are similarly impaired.

In a bid to place more accountability and responsibility on the hands of those who are closer to the sources of these sludge, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Los Angeles Waterkeeper (LA Waterkeeper), and Heal the Bay (HtB) have come out with a position criticizing the new 2012 Los Angeles County Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4 Permit) with a statement saying, "The 2012 MS4 Permit and Draft Order fail to adequately promote this objective and instead provide safe harbors for Permittees that neither embrace a watershed approach nor commit to capture meaningful amounts of stormwater runoff -- let alone guarantee compliance to Water Quality Standards."

In short, what is supposedly a better permit is inadvertently introducing loopholes that could jeopardize water quality in Los Angeles, possibly even California state. The environmentalists' joint presentation noted that this revised permit could become a model for permits in the state of California.

"MS4 permits are not allowed to move backwards over time," explains Liz Crosson. "They're supposed to get more and more strict as technology develops because this is a tech-driven issue. The fact that this current permit version is delaying compliance is a major problem and violation of the Clean Water Act."

MS4 is a state-issued permit designed to regulate stormwater and urban runoff discharges from the gutters and streets of minicipalities around the state. The permit issued to Los Angeles County, one of the country's largest municipal separate storm water systems, covers 84 municipalities and a few other unincorporated areas.

The Los Angeles County MS4 permit was last issued in 2001, but has been extended. The latest version of this permit was approved December 2012 and supposedly reflects the technical progress in stormwater quality control, as well as the evolution of stormwater management over the past 20 years. But following its adoption, the State Water Board received 37 petitions challenging provisions of the updated permit, which began another series of meetings in an effort to rectify the situation. On November 21, 2014, the State Water Board issued a draft order that it hopes would resolve the issues raised in the petitions and opened the draft to public comment.

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Stormwater runoff in Ballona Creek near Culver City | Photo: Graham Coreil-Allen/Flickr/Creative Commons

The biggest issue lies in the current permit's safe harbor provisions, says Crosson. Essentially, these provisions allow permit holders to hide behind water management plans. As long as permit holders have watershed management projects in the works to address water quality exceedances, they would be deemed in compliance with the water permit.

On the surface, the intent of the regulation is well-meaning. By giving permit holders a chance to address their water quality issue through watershed management projects, the Regional Water Board is ostensibly giving permittees an opportunity to address their issues, but these environmentalists see another dangerous aspect to this. "These programs effectively allow a Permittee to draft their own permit requirements, conditions, and schedules for compliance," it says in its statement. Crosson says that overseeing the effectiveness of these projects is also done in a "loosey-goosey way, with not a lot of requirements."

The groups' suggestion is basically to remove this safe harbors within the permit, but also "give permittees some flexibility and time to comply through time schedule orders," says Crosson. "The permit wouldn't say, 'As long as you have this plan, you're in compliance.' It would outline a time frame and deadline." This change would make water quality standards a goal with an enforceable deadline.

It all boils down to accountability, says Peter Shellenbarger, Science and Policy Analyst for Water Quality with Heal the Bay. "The big thing is that we just need to take more responsibility and really clean up." Rather than be overly lenient with water quality, each successive permit should hold permittees more accountable.

The need is ever more urgent. California is on its fourth year of drought, which makes every drop of water precious, even the ones that we scrounge from the streets. Good water quality is also crucial to any revitalization that's planned for the Los Angeles River. Where else will Los Angeles source the water it needs to support ecological restoration?

If successful, California has the potential to benefit. The so-called ocean economy accounts for over 375,000 jobs, $10 billion in wages, and $20 billion in goods and services. An improvement in Long Beach from a C grade to a B grade would create $8.8 million in economic benefits.

As of now, environmentalists are waiting to see if their comments have been heard by the State Board. According to Crosson, the State Board plans to hold another hearing to take in additional comments from the public. From there, it will decide whether to change any part of the draft MS4 permit or to uphold the latest version. No matter the outcome, it is clear Los Angeles still has much room to improve its performance. It needs to find the courage to take on specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and timely goals to better to ensure the quality of its water.

Read up on the Los Angeles MS4 order here.

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