With billions of dollars in improvements to the city of Los Angeles' sewer system well under way, the struggle to clean up Santa Monica Bay is centering on the vast underground storm drain network crisscrossing Los Angeles County.
Regulatory officials and environmentalists say the change reflects a nationwide trend as cities and counties have become more successful solving sewage treatment problems, only to be confronted with increasingly dangerous flows from previously ignored storm drains.
About 1,100 miles of drains lie beneath streets in the city of Los Angeles, collecting billions of gallons of runoff annually and dumping it into Santa Monica and San Pedro bays. The often-toxic soup of rainwater, grease, oil, litter and other pollutants has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a leading cause of water pollution.
"People don't realize that if you throw something in the street in downtown Los Angeles, it is likely going to end up in Santa Monica Bay," said Mark Gold, a staff scientist for Heal the Bay, an environmental group based in Santa Monica. "It ends up with the motor oil, pesticides and tons of animal waste--all in the ocean."
The ambitious cleanup will involve a dramatic--and potentially expensive--effort to change the way Los Angeles and its neighbors deal with what some environmentalists call "poison runoff." Cities are beginning to tax property owners to pay for storm drain improvements. Federal regulators recently began requiring special permits for discharges into the ocean from city and county storm drains.
The new permits have been criticized by some environmental groups as too lenient, but they have forced local officials to confront the issue. Within the next few years, Los Angeles will experiment with a variety of cleanup ideas, ranging from an inflatable rubber dam near Marina del Rey to countywide recycling programs for hazardous household wastes.
"It is an enormous task that will involve rethinking everything from the way we build parking lots to how you change your motor oil," said Felicia Marcus of the Los Angles Board of Public Works. "We are going to hear a lot more about storm drains. This is just starting."
More than 60 storm drain outlets--ranging from a small pipe in the Malibu hills to the concrete channel of Ballona Creek at the entrance to Marina del Rey--dump the polluted runoff into Santa Monica Bay. Last summer, officials took the unusual step of closing portions of Santa Monica Beach near one drain because of fears for public health. The county is expected to post warning signs this year near the mouth of at least eight drains.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that eight inches of rain in 1989 washed 150,000 pounds of lead, 500,000 pounds of zinc and 11,000 pounds of cadmium into Santa Monica Bay--levels of the toxic heavy metals far greater than those discharged by local sewage treatment plants during the same year. The environmental group also estimates that 4.5 million pounds of oil and grease, primarily from automobiles, drained into the bay in 1989.
"Most (sewage) discharges from traditional sources, such as cities and big industries, are pretty well controlled . . . (and) it is apparent that a lot of the sources of pollution coming into the bodies of water are storm water related," said Bob Wills, who monitors storm water problems in California and other Western states for EPA. "It is happening everywhere."
After years of delays and inaction, the federal government has moved to force cities and industries to reduce the flow of contaminants from storm drains. Long-awaited regulations issued in October by EPA require cities and counties of more than 100,000 to apply within a year for a storm water discharge permit and to develop programs to cut down on contaminants in the water.
In anticipation of the federal requirements, Los Angeles County and 16 local cities--including Los Angeles--negotiated an unprecedented agreement with state water quality officials last June that requires the local governments to begin controlling water pollution pouring from storm drains throughout the county. Eventually, the permit is expected to encompass all 86 cities in Los Angeles County.
Other cities and counties statewide, including Orange and San Diego counties, have followed suit, striking deals with state officials for the so-called "early permits." Federal regulatory officials have not objected to the arrangements, and in some cases, encouraged them.
The city of Los Angeles, which until recently had a dismal record in meeting federal standards for sewage discharges, has been pushed by regulatory officials into taking a leadership role on stormwater pollution. In settlements over the last several years with EPA and the state stemming from sewage-treatment violations, the city has agreed to correct problems at its Hyperion treatment plant and to begin cleaning up storm water pollution.