Cities throughout Los Angeles County--which suffers the worst urban runoff problem in the nation--are waging an intense battle against a proposed mandate that would help prevent toxic pollutants, bacteria and viruses from contaminating ocean waters.
The standard proposed by the region's water quality board would force Los Angeles County cities to fundamentally change how large new projects--from shopping centers to housing subdivisions--are built. If enacted, it would be the U.S.' most far-reaching restrictions on polluted storm water.
Cities would have to ensure that new developments capture either 85% of the runoff from a storm in a 24-hour period or the first three-fourths of an inch of rain. The standard would apply to new commercial projects of more than 100,000 square feet and all new gas stations, auto repair garages, restaurants and subdivisions of 10 or more houses.
Officials of about 50 cities, including Los Angeles and other beach communities, have joined with developers to fight the proposal through letters and in speeches at a packed public hearing held last month by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Because the costs of complying with the proposal are unknown, the city leaders are unconvinced that the benefits would be worth the expense, and they are asking for a thorough economic study. They also want any standards to be voluntary.
"Obviously a beach city wants to have its beaches pristine, but it's a matter of cost," said Neil Miller, Manhattan Beach's public works director.
Of the county's 85 cities, only Santa Monica--already a leader in cleaning up its polluted beach waters--has supported the runoff limits.
"The amount spent . . . is most likely a small percentage of total construction costs. The benefits, however, are regionwide," wrote Craig Perkins, the city's director of environmental and public works programs, in a letter to the water agency.
The agency's executive officer, Dennis Dickerson, does not need the support of his governing board or the cities to set the runoff limits. But he has wavered in the face of the opposition, and this month he postponed any action until at least January.
Dickerson said he wants to first try to educate city leaders and persuade them to change their minds or, if necessary, agree to a compromise. He declined to say, though, whether he is willing to turn the limits into voluntary guidelines.
"Hopefully, we can craft a document that will respond to some of the concerns of the cities but also ensure a strong level of environmental protection," he said.
The Los Angeles region, with so many people and so much pavement, faces an almost insurmountable challenge in cleaning up its voluminous runoff. The debate over how to contain the pollution has dragged on for a decade.
Massive amounts of oily waste, pesticides, metal residue and other pollutants flow to the sea from streets and parking lots, even on dry summer days. Runoff also carries human viruses and bacteria from sewage that can give swimmers, especially children, diarrhea, respiratory infections and other illnesses.
Since 1986 the federal Clean Water Act has required municipalities to reduce storm water runoff "to the maximum extent practicable." But experts say Southern California lags behind many other urban areas because of the huge size of the task and resistance to land use restrictions.
In the Southland, attempts to wrest any control of development from municipalities have long been considered taboo, and the runoff measure has allied cities with developers in a fight against local environmentalists.
Mark Gold, executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay, said the push for standards governing new development "has been our biggest fight for a decade" in the campaign to clean up runoff, the leading source of pollution in Santa Monica Bay.
David Beckman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, accused the cities of "a bunch of denying and deflecting and delaying." The proposal is far from a cure-all but "shows that the water board is finally getting serious about storm water control," he said.
"It only covers new development and redevelopment, so it should not be construed as something that will magically solve the storm water problem. But it should prevent it from getting worse," Beckman said.
On even a dry summer day, polluted runoff from the county's 10 million people would fill the Rose Bowl. Year-round, it contaminates beaches within roughly 100 yards of river mouths and storm drains. On a rainy day, the runoff renders all beaches unsafe.
In Los Angeles County, most runoff flows into three waterways: Ballona Creek, which empties into the ocean at Marina del Rey; Malibu Creek, which ends at Surfrider Beach; and the Los Angeles River, which flows into Long Beach Harbor. Smaller storm drains are sprinkled along the coastline.
The proposal is designed to sharply reduce runoff from new buildings in all but severe storms.