Court Reverses Decision That Would Have Jeopardized California Water Quality


Posted on 15 December 2010

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By David Beckman
Natural Resource Defense Council

When it rains in Los Angeles, billions of gallons of water pour into the city’s storm drains and, carrying bacteria, pathogens, animal waste, metals, oils, and other pollutants, flow untreated into the Pacific Ocean and onto our beaches. A recent NRDC report found that in 2009, stormwater runoff was the primary known source of pollution at beaches nationwide, consistent with past years.  

On Tuesday the California Court of Appeal reversed a trial court decision that threatened clean water standards protecting Southern California waters, including its world-famous beaches, and millions of people who use them every year. The unanimous 3-0 ruling restores the water board’s authority to implement health-protective measures reducing California’s worst source of water pollution, stormwater runoff, in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

This decision will protect millions of people who use local beaches and water resources throughout Southern California and assures that science remains the focus when these standards are developed.  Water quality standards play a pivotal role in pollution control because they serve as legal limits on the amount of dangerous pollutants, such as bacteria and toxic chemicals, which can flow into and contaminate local waterways.  Stormwater pollution makes people vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose, and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders, and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

NRDC, on behalf of itself, Heal the Bay, and Santa Monica Baykeeper, intervened in the case in 2008 after the Superior Court issued a decision that would have stripped the water board’s authority to enforce pollution limits to control stormwater pollution, ruling that the water board did not follow proper state regulation when it established limits for Los Angeles and Ventura County waterways.   

In overturning the Superior Court decision, the Court of Appeal panel agreed with the environmental groups’ positions, including that the federal Clean Water Act requires state water boards to protect water quality by adopting science-based measures to reduce water pollution in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Specifically, the Court found that the water board’s actions were compelled by the federal Clean Water Act, and state law could not be used to justify imposing lower water quality levels.  Importantly, the Court of Appeal also confirmed that water bodies must be protected from pollution, regardless of its source, which is a win for public health and Southern California waterways.

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David Beckman is the lead counsel and director of NRDC's national Water program.