At the current rate of progress, the Marina del Rey watershed would need more than 28 centuries to meet next year’s EPA target

By Gary Walker

Trash and debris — much of it food packaging — is a regular sight along the shoreline of Ballona Creek
Photo courtesy of Patrick Tyrrell

Marina del Rey, Santa Monica and other Westside communities have been sluggish in expanding their ability to capture toxic urban runoff before it reaches the ocean, according to a recent analysis by Heal the Bay.

Citing seasonal fluctuations and the difficulty of consistent water quality testing, scientists with the Santa Monica-based water quality nonprofit measured the progress that local watershed areas made from 2012 to 2018 toward achieving stormwater retention targets established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Marina del Rey’s watershed management program, which includes parts of Venice and Culver City, has reached just one fifth of 1% (0.21%) of its EPA target for the year 2021, achieving 1.41 acre feet of additional stormwater retention capacity since December 2012 out of a target of 671.69 acre feet — and that’s including flood control upgrades to Oxford Basin Lagoon.

“If the current rate of implementation continues, the final 2021 goal will be achieved in the year 4877,” the report states of the marina’s watershed, which according to state officials continues to be impaired by copper, PCB, DDT, lead, zinc, fecal coliform and other pollutants.

While other local watersheds vary in size and stormwater retention target timelines, not one of them — including Ballona Creek, Santa Monica Bay and the Beach Cities — have progressed more than single-digit percentage of EPA goals.

“Heal the Bay’s stormwater report shows six years of shockingly minimal progress in cleaning up Los Angeles’ stormwater. We urge officials to take immediate action by strengthening regulations that hold polluters accountable for implementing multi-benefit stormwater projects,” Heal the Bay CEO Shelley Luce told The Argonaut.

Annelisa Moe, a Heal the Bay water quality scientist and the study’s lead author, said lack of funding for stormwater retention projects is largely to blame for the lack of progress.

“That’s one of the major barriers to building and completing stormwater infrastructure. We’re hoping that many of these projects will be built and completed when Measure W funds are released next year,” “she said.

Approved by Los Angeles County voters in November 2018, Measure W is expected to raise $300 million per year for regional stormwater capture, cleanup and conservation projects. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to decide on funding for several project proposals in mid-2020.

“Thanks to the voters of Los Angeles County passing Measure W in 2018, we will have the resources needed to begin the modernization of L.A’.s water infrastructure and to improve our stormwater capture, quality and storage systems,” said L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district includes Santa Monica and Venice.

In the meantime, diverting pollution from stormwater drains has been a priority for environmental advocates and public officials.

“Safe, clean water is a responsibility we all share. I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of the public’s role in keeping trash and other stormwater pollutants out of waterways and the ocean,” L.A. County Director of Public Works Mark Pestrella wrote in an email statement.

Local officials will soon be asking the California Water Resources Control Board to renew sewer system and storm drain permits, and Natural Resource Defense Council water quality analyst Corinne Bell expects them to ask for more time to comply with EPA guidelines.

“If more time is requested and granted, that will just translate into dirty water for a longer period of time,” Bell asserted. “These numbers say that there has been very little progress. We should be further along with this watershed-based approach of water quality.”

Lax and inconsistent enforcement of stormwater regulations can also contribute to poor stormwater results. Earlier this year, an NRDC investigation found more than 400 storm drain water quality violations in the Santa Monica region and 139 within the Ballona Creek watershed in which polluters did not receive citations from regional water quality control officials.

“If there are no consequences for not enforcing rules, you might not have a lot of urgency to do so. These numbers demonstrate the lack of urgency that permitees are feeling,” Bell said.

Moe said Heal the Bay’s report should be taken as a wakeup call ahead of talks for renewing local storm drain permits.

“It’s the first time that anyone has looked at what kind of progress is happening with the MS4 [Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System] permit,” she said. “The fact that we’re not reaching our goals for catching stormwater is something the public should be concerned about.”