Stormwater Runoff Limits Tightened by Water Boards
Recent actions by two water boards signal a movement in the state towards greater regulation of non-point water pollution. The new regulations could start a trend in California of tightened development standards, which have already taken hold elsewhere in the country.
The biggest step was taken in Los Angeles, where the local Regional Water Quality Control Board voted in January to set measurable numerical standards for treating stormwater runoff in new development throughout Los Angeles County. While similar steps have been taken in other states, this is believed to be the first time in California that it has occurred. Briefly stated, the new regulations require developers to collect or filter storm runoff.
Predictably, environmentalists are elated by the new rules and developers have complained that they are unnecessary and will add to building costs.
In another move, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted new measures regulating water runoff. But the state action did not include the same stringent measurements that were part of the Los Angeles package, and in the short term the state regulations should have a more limited impact.
The regulations adopted in Los Angeles are "probably the most significant step the Regional Water Quality Control Board has ever taken regarding stormwater," said Alex Helperin, an attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. He called the Los Angeles stormwater drainage problem the worst in the country, with beaches frequently closed after storms send pollution into Santa Monica Bay and other coastal waters.
One reason for the runoff problems is that the region's many concrete flood control systems send water quickly to the ocean after rain falls. The problem is exacerbated by development, which strips vegetation that could hold the water.
The new regulations will do little for the existing problem, but, by regulating new development, should prevent pollution from getting worse, Helperin said.
Under the regulations adopted in Los Angeles County in late January, numerous types of development will have to filter stormwater runoff from roofs, parking lots and other pavement. The new standards will impact commercial projects of more than 100,000 square feet, new parking lots with 25 or more spaces, gas stations, auto repair garages, restaurants larger than 5,000 square feet, and subdivisions with at least 10 houses.
The new developments must be designed to collect or filter runoff from the first 0.75 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Developers are given a number of ways to comply, including adding grass or detention ponds and trenches.
Figures released by the regional board show that complying with the new regulations adds only 0.5% to a project's costs, according to Helperin.
For a $6.5 million commercial project, the cost of a detention basin is figured to be $28,000, with annual maintenance costs of $33. An infiltration basin would cost $17,550 to construct with annual maintenance of $1,350, and catch basin filters would cost $1,500 with yearly maintenance of $495, according to Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The standards affect all of Los Angeles County's 85 cities, and were opposed by most of them — but not by Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. The Building Industry Association also fought the regulations.
The BIA is considering its options, including an appeal to the State Water Resources Control Board , said Ray Pearl, deputy director of public affairs for the Building Industry Association for Greater Los Angeles. If the state board rejects an appeal, the BIA's next option would be to file a lawsuit.
Los Angeles County adopted similar runoff regulations for unincorporated sections of the county last year to settle a lawsuit from the NRDC. That action has created delays and uncertainty, and design costs have increased, Pearl said. At the same time, he said, the new standards will not make a dent in water quality because they address only a small portion of a larger problem. "To throw water down the drain, so to speak, with no measurable impact is quite frankly ridiculous," he said.
But environmentalists disagree. The City of Santa Monica has been regulating runoff for the past six years, and "we've had a boom in development here," said Mitzy Taggert, a staff scientist with Heal the Bay, A Santa Monica-based environmental group.
Other areas have already adopted similar runoff regulations without experiencing economic problems, including Austin, Texas, Phoenix, Arizona, and the states of Maryland and Florida, Helperin said. The NRDC attorney said he sees a "pretty minimal effect on land use. There's not going to be a reduction in development."
The Coastal Commission has followed the adoption of the Los Angeles County standards closely, and has begun requiring essentially the same standards on a case-by-case basis in other jurisdictions, according to Cy Oggins, coordinator of the Coastal Commission's Coastal Non-Point Pollution Control Program until mid-February. When the Coastal Commission looked at the Local Coastal Plan for the Mendocino County town of Gualala last October, it required the elimination of 85% of runoff, which is similar to the Los Angeles County standards. Runoff controls have been part of the Coastal Commission's work since it began, Oggins added, but requiring those controls at a level of 85% is new.
Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board plan adopted in December is part of a 61-point plan to curb pollution. Unlike the Los Angeles regulations, the state program, which covers all types of water runoff, does not establish any numerical standards. Taggert, of Heal the Bay, called it a "soft plan."
"There's no benchmark to see if you're being successful or not"" she said.
The state plan calls for strict monitoring of water quality and cleanup of polluted runoff. That plan was also approved by the Coastal Commission in January. Oggins described the plan as an update of a 1988 state non-point pollution plan, but the recent action added 61 management measures in six categories: forestry, urban areas, marina and recreational boating, channeling waterways, agriculture and wetland and riparian areas.
Controlling water pollution statewide is estimated to cost $14 billion in the next decade, according to the Los Angeles Times. Proposition 13, the water bond on the March ballot, contains $190 million for non-point source pollution control.
A staff member at the State Water Resources Control Board said there will be several phases of the plan, with many of the actual implementation standards to be developed by regional boards, such as the one in Los Angeles.
Ray Pearl, Building Industry Association of Southern California, (818) 225-2857.
Alex Helperin, NRDC, (323) 934-6900.
Mitzy Taggert, Heal the Bay, (310) 581-4188.