Published 12/11/2009 on Los Angeles Times
Cities along the watershed are required by 2016 to keep all trash out of their storm drains. Those that don’t comply will now be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
Regional water quality officials on Thursday put some teeth into their long campaign to cleanse the Los Angeles River system of the tons of trash that turn it into a movable landfill after major storms.
Standards previously adopted by the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board give cities along the watershed until 2016 to keep all trash out of their storm drains.
On Thursday, the board incorporated those limits into storm water permits, putting municipalities that don’t meet the requirements in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Until now there had been no penalty for noncompliance.
“It’s taken two decades to get to this point,” board vice-chair Madelyn Glickfeld said after the 5-0 vote. “If we hadn’t done this today, it would have been a signal” to cities “to relax, guys.”
During storms, tons of trash and plastic debris wash up in municipal drains that empty into the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. The trash floating at the river’s mouth in Long Beach can be so thick that it is hard to see any water. In the unusually wet winter of 2005, Long Beach hauled more than 12,000 tons of garbage out of the river.
Much of the trash winds up in the Pacific Ocean, contributing to huge floating garbage patches. Pieces of plastic can wrap around wildlife and kill birds and fish.
Trash was formally identified as a pollution problem in the river in 1996. Five years later, the regional water board adopted standards. But 22 cities sued to overturn the trash limits, saying they would be expensive and difficult to meet.
The courts found the board had not performed an adequate environmental impact analysis of the new rules, but otherwise upheld them.
After conducting an environmental review, the board readopted the trash standards in 2007.
In the meantime, some cities in the watershed, including Los Angeles, started installing screens and collection systems to keep street debris from washing into sewers. Sixteen cities in the watershed recently received $10 million in federal stimulus money to outfit their catch basins.
Local officials pointed to progress Thursday. “We have taken trash reduction seriously,” said Signal Hill Councilman Larry Forester.
Another official showed the board photographs he took after Monday’s storm. Parts of the river that have been coated with trash in the past were largely clean.
Local representatives argued that it wasn’t necessary to write a target of zero trash discharges into the storm permits, and that doing so would set a burdensome precedent for other pollutants.