9 Water Quality Deadlines Extended: When Will LA Finally Get Clean and Safe Water?
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board chose to delay clean water progress last month by extending the deadlines polluters have to reduce their stormwater pollution, up to 6.5 years in some cases. Their decision allows the continued discharge of pollutants from across LA to drain through our communities and into the Pacific Ocean.
On March 11, the LA Regional Water Board voted to extend nine water quality deadlines, which were set decades ago to improve water quality and protect the health of our communities and our ecosystems. This sends a dangerous message that it is ok to continue contaminating our neighborhoods, rivers, and ocean even after long-standing deadlines have passed us by.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects our rivers and oceans by limiting the amount of pollution that can be discharged into them. Under the Clean Water Act, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) refers to the maximum amount of pollution that a waterbody can handle before people get sick or aquatic life is harmed. Environmental groups fought hard to make the Regional Water Boards start paying attention to TMDLs starting in the 1990s.
There are 59 TMDLs in the Los Angeles Region for various contaminants (trash, bacteria, etc) polluting our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Some have deadlines as late as 2038, so there is still time to meet those limits. Others are due this year, and some have already passed. These TMDL deadlines were set decades ago with lengthy timelines that gave dischargers (called “permittees”) many years, in some cases nearly 20 years, to achieve these pollution limits. The deadlines were developed through extensive negotiations with all stakeholders. Heal the Bay and concerned community members from all over the County showed up at Regional Water Board hearings to demand pollution limits and clean water. At that time, we celebrated these TMDLs and believed our regulators would finally hold polluters accountable for meeting them.
Unfortunately, permittees are far behind schedule in reducing polluted discharges, as Heal the Bay reported back in 2019 in our Stormwater Report. Last year, the LA Regional Water Board confirmed this trend of very slow progress, reporting that only 6.6% of required pollution reduction projects were completed in the areas that received deadline extensions. The lack of measurability and accountability within the Stormwater Permit allowed this slow progress to go unnoticed for years. When it was finally daylighted, the LA Regional Water Board did nothing to correct it.
As a result, there are several TMDLs with imminent deadlines that will not be met, and others that are well past due. Because of the extremely slow progress over the last 20 years, permittees are complaining that these ~20-year deadlines are now unrealistic, and have requested 10+ years of extra time! It seems they feel no urgency to clean up our community’s waterways.
Meanwhile, water quality suffers. You can see that by checking California’s List of Impaired Waters, where 208 waterbodies in the LA Region are listed as polluted by multiple contaminants. You can see it in UCLA’s 2019 Water Report Card, which assigned LA surface waters a dismal grade of D/Incomplete. You can see it in Heal the Bay’s River Report Card when bacteria still plagues our rivers even during dry weather, and in our Beach Report Card when grades across the board plummet during wet weather. There are other reports that tell a similar story, and we have yet to see any report that tells a different one. LA’s water is contaminated, stormwater is the primary source of that pollution, and no one is being held accountable for cleaning it up.
The recent hearing on TMDL deadline extensions was contentious. After much discussion, three of the seven Board Members voted to provide the 10 year extensions requested by permittees. But the majority of Board Members favored shorter extensions, and spoke powerfully in favor of clean water protection and environmental justice. In the end, they voted to approve extensions for nine TMDLs ranging from 1.5-6.5 years, rather than 10 or more years. While any extension delays progress towards achieving clean water, shorter extensions at least reign in further delays to achieving clean water.
Four of the Board Members also asked for better accountability from permittees, so we don’t end up right back here two decades from now, with poor water quality, wishing more had been done. Clear accountability can only be achieved through a strong Stormwater Permit. Unfortunately, our analysis of the Stormwater Permit clearly shows that the kind of accountability requested by the Board Members does not currently exist.
One bright spot: the Stormwater Permit is up for renewal later this year, meaning we have a chance to make it better. We are asking Regional Water Board staff and Board Members to support clear, numeric pollution limits so we can hold permittees accountable to actually meet the new deadlines, because everyone in LA County deserves safe, clean water.
Together we can Take LA By Storm to demand clear, measurable, and enforceable goals in the 2021 MS4 Permit. Sign up for emails to stay informed of the process and how you can take part!