June 28, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

Heal the Bay Advocates for TMDL Compliance And Cleaner Waterways

Dedicated to cleaning and restoring the Santa Monica Bay, Heal the Bay is one of the region's leading advocates for environmentally sound water policy. It led the fight to properly treat sewage from Hyperion treatment plant, and it continues to target pollution from the basin's storm drains. As the city of Los Angeles implements Prop O and county cities create plans to comply with TMDL limits, MIR was pleased to speak with Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold about the regional investments and policies necessary to ensure that our region's beaches, oceans, and waterways are as clean and safe as possible.

Mark Gold

The California Supreme Court recently upheld the state's right to impose total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits on urban runoff. How does this ruling, and current TMDL limits, impact the health of Santa Monica Bay?

At stake in that court case was whether or not the L.A. River would ever get cleaned up. The trash TMDL requires that there will be no trash in the L.A. River within the next ten years or so. There's the classic question of what "zero" really means, and of course the answer is that it doesn't mean zero. It means removing 100 percent of the trash greater than 5 millimeters in diameter in a one-year storm. The court decided that there was no reason to hear thecase, but they don't listen to most cases. So that's not a big surprise. I'm not an attorney, so I'm not going to read much more into that.

In the wake of that ruling, what must cities do to comply with the TMDL requirements?

Nothing right now, because the California Environmental Quality Act issue was referred back to the Regional Water Board. The Regional Board will address this in the next few months. At least the city of Los Angeles, the county and some cities are proceeding with putting in catch-basin trash exclusion devices to keep the trash out of Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek.

What should the city of Los Angeles' $500 million from Prop O be used for? Does it serve as a model for other jurisdictions in the basin?

The fact that Prop O passed with 76 percent of the vote back in 2004 is unheard-of. You just don't see numbers that high. Clearly the public in the city of Los Angeles greatly cares about clean water, water supply, and flood control. That being said, I have sat on the citizens oversight advisory committee since its inception, and we learned a lot from making recommendations on Prop O projects.

There were something like 52 different applications, and I think one of the problems is that the criteria the city put together were inadequate. They were not getting strong proposals that clearly described the improvements in water quality, flood control, and water supply. I think the next call for projects will be at the end of this year, and I think it will include more specific criteria asking for quantification of benefits. We pushed very strongly to have a more quantifiable approach, but the city wanted to take a shot at doing it their own way first. Now we're all in agreement that it's better to go in this other direction.

That being said, a number of projects that were recommended-our group is purely advisory-have been approved, and they would reduce the amount of trash going into the L.A. River and Ballona Creek for the trash TMDL. There's funding for putting in roughly 16,000 catch basin inserts to prevent the trash from getting into the storm drain system. And there was a recommendation to move forward on projects that would clean up Santa Monica Bay beaches as soon as possible. There are a total of 22 projects that will at least be funded to the concept phase.

A few projects have gone forward, but most of the rest of them have basically gone to two phases, where the first phase would be a full concept report, which will include more technical analysis of the projects. We should start seeing those in our committee within the next two months or so. Based on those, we'll make recommendations to fund projects fully, partially, or not at all. Because of the lack of information in the original proposals, we decided to go this route, because everyone on the committee is very conscious of not wasting taxpayer dollars.

Is there a geographic priority list? Are you most interested in the Santa Monica Bay or are these projects scattered along the L.A. River as well?

There were no geographic criteria, and, based on our discussions, that didn't come into play for many of the projects. Location of the project in proximity to water bodies listed as impaired by the state was critical. I think the projects were largely based on city or community need. Also, there were a lot of deferred park maintenance projects which brings in the question of whether these projects are appropriate for Prop O funds. Community support played a pretty significant role, which is good.

The lion's share of the money was not recommended to go to the Santa Monica Bay. Most of them are within the L.A. River watershed, and considering the size of that watershed, that absolutely should be the case. A lot of them are also down in the Wilmington/San Pedro area. Considering some of the water quality problems in that area, that's probably a good idea. Two of my favorite projects were targeting very polluted water in Echo Park Lake and Machado Lake.

How healthy is the Santa Monica Bay?


The hottest topic right now is the beach bacteria TMDL deadline of July 15. The requirements within the TMDL are that all beaches from Palos Verdes to the Ventura County line for the time periodApril through October need to be 100 percent in compliance with beach water quality standards starting July 15. Many beaches along that 60-mile stretch do not comply with that requirement. It's going to be very interesting to see what the state does to make sure that public health is protected.

We've been sounding the alarm on this for the last three years because, with our Beach Report Card, we probably have a better on handle on beach water quality than anyone else in the state, and L.A. County has a major problem. One of the big surprises was that a bunch of beaches that had not previously been monitored in Malibu had extremely poor water quality, and there's been no effort to warn the public, let alone try to find and stop the source of the pollution. That's the biggest issue facing the bay: What's going to happen after July 15 to make sure that the 50 million people who use our beaches every year are safe?

MIR recently interviewed Rick Abel of BHP Billiton about their proposal for a floating LNG terminal. How do you feel about that proposal and others for LNG along our coast?

Heal the Bay has not taken a blanket position on LNG. We were extremely critical of the inadequacies in the Billiton EIR. The one thing Heal the Bay has commented on overall is the lack of state leadership on what the right LNG project should be. This race to see who can get through all their planning and environmental review first is not good planning for the state. That, to me, is the big issue, not dealing with what's wrong with the Long Beach project versus Billiton versus Woodside versus the rest of them. My big fear is that LNG is starting to gain a negative connotation among the public when the reality is that there are great public health benefits to, for instance, replacing diesel trucks with LNG trucks. That's where the state should step in, and it just hasn't done so.

A related coastal development issue is desalination. As California's population grows and Southern California's demand for water increases, has Heal the Bay taken a position on desalination?

We have been very involved in the issue, and, again, we're mostly looking at it case-by-case, but in this circumstance we've said that we oppose the co-location of desalination with once-through cooling power plants, because it could enable them to get out of the Clean Water Act requirements to reduce their impacts on fish populations. The big issue is where to get the water for desalination and what the impacts are on marine life. We're sure that it's possible to do this in a manner that's not environmentally devastating, but the path it's going on now is not promising.

We agree with many of our environmental colleagues that it's absurd to focus on desalination without stronger focus on conservation, where we've barely scratched the surface on a statewide basis, although our region has been a leader on conservation. We don't even have waterless urinals in every government building in the state! That should have happened years ago.

The fact that the Metropolitan Water District is not offering an economic incentive for new storm water recharged into our groundwater system is also a big oversight. A $250 rebate per acre-foot exists for desalination. Just focusing on desalination without seriously considering better use of storm water as new water supply as well as doing a heck of a lot better job on water conservation is definitely troubling to the environmental community, and we definitely support a lot of folks who have been fighting hard on that issue.

Heal the Bay says that it's "halfway to healing the bay." What does the next half consist of?

The reason we always say that we're "halfway" to healing the bay is that there have been tremendous improvements in the treatment of sewage that gets discharged into the bay. Because of upgrades at local sewage treatment plants and the elimination of sludge discharge there's been a 95 percent reduction in sewage solids going into the bay. We don't have a dead zone in the bay or fin rot and tumors in our fish anymore. So there has been a great deal of improvement. But the other half is urban runoff, and even though urban runoff regulations have been in place for 16 years, the lack of measurable progress is beyond disappointing. There's a big effort to deal with that-Measure O was a great example, and the county might do something in 2008 to fund resources for this issue-and there's a regional understanding of how critical this issue is.

Unfortunately, there's still far too much division and litigation, largely from the municipalities, so it's very hard to move forward on urban watershed management unless we get out of court. And we've been trying to encourage folks to do that for quite some time. Heal the Bay has never sued a city on a storm water issue. That's not what we're about; we're a problem-solving group. First we should be looking get rid of all dry-weather nuisance flows-that should have been abated by now, and it's certainly against the law. But really we have to change the way that we do development in L.A.: we keep building from lot line to lot line without saving green space and trying to maximize stormwater infiltration on-site, which would make this a more livable community overall.


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