NRDC says local water quality agency is shirking its duty to enforce local cities’ stormwater runoff violations

By Gary Walker

NRDC found more than 400 stormwater runoff violations
at Santa Monica Pier

The agency charged with monitoring water quality standards throughout the Greater Los Angeles region found that local cities have committed more than 2,000 water quality violations within a five-year period, but the violators suffered little if any consequences.

The lack of enforcement by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, according to Santa Monica-based environmental advocacy nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), helped contribute to more than 100 million gallons of contaminated  runoff spilling into the ocean.

The NRDC found in excess of 400 violations of the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit at Santa Monica Pier, 78 violations at the Pico-Kanter stormwater station in Santa Monica, and 139 at Ballona Creek in Del Rey and Culver City.

In a May 1 letter to California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, NRDC Water Quality Analyst Corinne Bell asked Blumenfeld to encourage the board to address what they call an urgent water quality problem.

“Right now, there is a prime opportunity to address this issue. This past year, water quality stakeholders throughout Los Angeles County worked collaboratively to help pass Measure W, which will generate about $300 million annually for stormwater management projects in the county. These funds can be applied to both the watershed and city projects,” Bell wrote. “Action by the state board would improve the watershed planning process would help ensure meaningful progress to improve water quality.”

Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board Executive Director Renee Purdy challenged Bell’s characterization of her agency failing to enforce water quality standards.

“Their characterization of uncited and unenforced violations is incorrect. They have a misunderstanding of the water board’s enforcement policy,” Purdy asserted. “We are doing our review of the report. We do think that there are some discrepancies in the report and how [its findings] are being used.”

Bell said her organization found out about the lack of enforcement through a public records request of data collected by the regional water board and utilized a state database, the California Integrated Water Quality System, to verify their findings.

“I was shocked when I saw the number of violations. When you look at the numbers, they’re a lot over a short amount of time,” she said.

Bell said water samples are taken at each of the locations by the local governing bodies included in the Ballona Watershed — Santa Monica, Los Angeles city and county, Culver City, Inglewood and Beverly Hills — and that these entities are required to turn their samples over to the water quality control board.

Purdy acknowledged that there have been some lapses, but said the regional board has been citing watershed members who have not been in compliance with water quality standards more often than the numbers reflect.

“We don’t dispute that have been of exceedances water quality standards. But all of these violations are being addressed by the permitees,” she said. “NRDC did not mention that there have been at least two administrative civil liability cases that the board has brought against permitees.”

Purdy added that many of the locations with reported violations utilize devices that are designed to prevent runoff from entering the ocean through storm drains, and that runoff is diverted to the Hyperion Treatment Sewage Plant in Playa del Rey during dry seasons and other periods without a lot of rain.

Heal the Bay water quality scientist Annelisa Ehert Moe says the violations match up with what her water quality organization has seen at the same sites for years.

“It’s not entirely surprising, because we’ve seen these dry weather exceedances in our annual Beach Report Card with similar dry weather grades,” Ehert Moe said. “Their approach has been to gives cities leeway until they reach their goals, but it’s created this culture of noncompliance.”

Bell said her organization is essentially looking for the water quality board to do two things to rectify the current situation.

“The regional water quality board is working on a new MS4 permit. We would like them to make sure that they are creating a strong and enforceable permit, and we would like to see that permit enforced,” she said.

Last year, Santa Monica installed a 1.6-million gallon stormwater tank under the pier that can capture and clean more than a million gallons of polluted water. Water near the Santa Monica Pier has historically been among the most polluted areas on the Westside.