County, Malibu sued over clean-water rules

Times Staff Writer

Conservation groups on Monday sued Los Angeles County and the city of Malibu to force them to clean up the slurry of fecal bacteria, copper, lead, cyanide and other pollutants being washed down storm drains, creeks and rivers into coastal waters.

The two lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, are test cases aimed at enforcing compliance with Clean Water Act rules first adopted 17 years ago.

The cases rely on annual reports filed by the county showing that it violates limits set for bacteria, heavy metals and other pollutants carried by rainfall or sprinkler runoff down the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, Ballona and Malibu creeks and other discharge points into Southern California waters.


“Polluted runoff is the No. 1 source of contaminants flowing into the ocean,” said David Beckman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It continues flowing into our coastal waters year after year. It’s bad for people and marine life and it’s against the law.”

Up to this point, these so-called storm water rules required county and city officials to take steps toward cleanup, such as mounting education campaigns and stenciling storm drains with no-dumping warnings explaining that the channels flow into the ocean.

The lawsuit does not specify how the county and city should meet the standards of the Clean Water Act. Those details would be left to government officials.

The resources council and Santa Monica Baykeeper argue that solutions have been developed in other areas, such as carving catch basins to allow storm water to percolate into the ground, using porous pavement, and restoring wetlands and vegetation to filter pollutants.

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve brought litigation,” said Mark Pestrella, an assistant deputy director of the county’s Public Works Department. “We are going to have to spend money on defending ourselves instead of spending it on improving water quality.”

The county, he said, is in full compliance with the law. He also said the county would press ahead with what he called “progressive plans” to clean up urban runoff, showing its commitment to safe waterways and public health.

Malibu City Atty. Christi Hogin said she was disappointed that the city was sued, because it is talking with environmental lawyers to resolve the issue.

“It’s frustrating because we feel like we are the good guys,” Hogin said. Malibu has been using a newly built wastewater plant to collect and treat storm water that flows into Malibu Creek, she said. And the city has been working with state officials on how to handle discharges into coastal waters from Latigo Point to Point Mugu, an area designated by the state as having special biological significance.

Under state rules, no polluted discharges are allowed in such areas, which are known for their abundance or assemblage of marine life.

Like other urban areas across the nation, Los Angeles County and its cities are compelled by the Clean Water Act to clean up discharges into streams, rivers and coastal waters.

In 1991, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a plan to begin mopping up the residue of urban life that washes out of industrial lots and chemically treated lawns and onto city streets.

A renewed plan adopted in 2001, which set limits on various pollutants, prompted a lawsuit by the county and 32 of its largely inland cities, which argued that the state should pay for efforts to reduce pollutants to below these limits. The case ended last year when the state Supreme Court refused to overturn lower court decisions to toss it out.

Since then, environmental lawyers have been meeting with the county and cities to nudge compliance, without reaching an agreement, Beckman said. So they sued, hoping the federal courts would force compliance with the water quality standards. The lawsuit alleges these standards have been violated 235 times since 2002.

In one instance, the suit says, Los Angeles River water registered concentrations of fecal coliform, an indicator of feces from warm-blooded animals, that were 60,000 times above the legal limit. High bacterial readings force the closure of beaches.

Southern California has long had one of the nation’s worst urban runoff problems, largely because so much of the landscape has been paved over or developed.

All of this hardened landscape tilts toward the sea. So most of the rain in the area rushes into coastal waters, sweeping contaminants along with it.

This pollution, according to various studies, contributes to gastrointestinal illnesses among Southern California beachgoers, increases the toxicity of fish caught in local waters and spurs harmful algae blooms that can poison marine life.