A recent court decision on water pollution and who is responsible for protecting the state’s coastlines from toxic discharges may have ramifications for local coastal waters.

On Feb.1, a federal court struck down a decision last year that found Los Angeles County officials violated the Clean Water Act for not preventing pollution from entering Surfrider Beach in Malibu. Santa Monica Baykeeper was one of the environmental organizations that filed a legal action against the county in 2009 and the following year celebrated a court ruling that found the county had violated the water quality law.

But this month’s reversal by U.S. District Judge Howard Matz has some environmental groups believing that the ramifications of his ruling will allow for more bacterial discharge to enter Santa Monica Bay waters.

“This creates a very dangerous situation for all beachgoers,” asserted Santa Monica Baykeeper Executive Director Elizabeth Crosson. “Cities and counties continue to fight (legal) technicalities while beachgoers will continue to get sicker.”

Los Angeles County received a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit from the state Regional Water Control Board Dec. 13, 2001, which regulates what can be discharged into the watershed and makes the county responsible for ensuring and enforcing compliance. The permit requires the county to control and reduce pollutants entering the storm drain system from residents and businesses.

The county challenged an earlier state court verdict on procedural grounds related to setting water quality limits for Santa Monica Bay beaches.

“The state court determined that the water quality board had made some procedural errors by putting limits in the permits,” Crosson, who is an environmental attorney, explained.

The other group involved in the lawsuit, the National Resources Defense Council, claims the legal action filed by the county against the water quality board altered the language of the permit, in effect rendering the permit not applicable.

Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, believes the ruling will have water quality-related implications for planned restoration efforts at Malibu Lagoon and possibly at the Ballona Wetlands.

“Every court decision in the past involving clean water has strengthened water quality protections and implementation efforts by industries or municipalities or both, depending on the decision,” Abramson asserted.

Water quality is an important component of the planned rehabilitation of the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands, said Dr. Edith Read.

“We know that Ballona Creek has a high pollutant load, and if the levees are open to create more water flow in the wetlands, that has the potential to impact the salt marshes,” said Read, who manages the Saltwater Marsh in Playa del Rey.

According to the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a public agency for environmental research, routine monitoring of dry-weather flow at Ballona Creek has shown concentrations of cadmium, copper, nickel, zinc and lead that exceed state water quality criteria at least occasionally.

However, monitoring has not been done to investigate pollutant contributions from storm drains. Ballona Creek and Malibu Creek are the two largest bodies that discharge into Santa Monica Bay.

The state Coastal Conservancy will be the lead agency for the planned restoration at Ballona. Mary Small, the conservancy’s south coast programs manager, says the wetlands rehabilitation initiative will not be a stormwater restoration project.

“Ballona is primarily a habitat restoration project,” Small explained. “Restoring the habitat will benefit the water quality there.”

Crosson believes the original limits of bacteria will be reinserted into the county’s permit. “And violators will be responsible for the bacteria limits,” she added.

Crosson said she was basing her argument on provisions in the federal Clean Water Act, which mandates the inclusion of bacteria limits, as well as on the fact that the water quality board has released a draft of the bacteria requirements for public comment.

The agency’s board will convene on April 7 to take action on the draft.

Abramson thinks the ruling will affect how county officials manage their stormwater protocols.

“This decision will require some changes of the county’s existing storm water program, which will be mandated to occur within a certain timeframe,” he predicted. “Once the county begins to implement these policies in Malibu they will likely implement them throughout their jurisdiction, including areas that drain into Ballona Creek and wetlands.”

The watershed manger also feels that Matz’s decision will allow county officials to be more proficient at new methods of water quality enhancements.

“They will also become more adept at installing these solutions, which will decrease costs and provide for enhanced designs and capabilities as the practitioners gain more experience and comfort with these stormwater practices,” he predicted.

Calls to the county Department of Public Works, which manages stormwater runoff policy, were not returned.

Abramson said officials at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, which is based at Loyola Marymount University and is assisting in the Ballona restoration, are hopeful that any possible changes to the county’s stormwater policies will include low impact development technologies.

Low impact development (LID) is a new land planning and engineering design approach with a goal of maintaining and enhancing the pre-development hydrologic regime of urban and developing watersheds.

“These LID solutions are low cost, require very little if any maintenance, provide native habitat and green space, recharge our groundwater supplies and replenish the aquifers, as well as clean up polluted stormwater,” he said.

Crosson said in the meantime, between now and April 7, county beaches and the Santa Monica Bay could be in danger of increased bacteria levels.

“Polluters can continue to discharge pollution with stronger limits in place,” she said. “It’s very important for the regional quality board to act quickly.”

Calls to the water board and Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky were not returned at press time. Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe also could not be reached for comment. Knabe and Yaroslavsky represent the coastal areas of Los Angeles.