County officials OK controversial water pollution standards

Seeking to reduce tainted runoff, county officials last week approved water pollution standards that Malibu officials have argued will be difficult and costly for the city to meet. 

By law, cities must meet county standards mandating maximum limits, called total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), for certain types of pollutants. 

The most controversial aspect of the revised county stormwater system permit is its requirement that cities now meet TMDLs for 33 different types of pollutants. The permit Malibu has been functioning under required monitoring the TMDLs of two types of pollutants.

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Dozens of cities near the Santa Monica Bay objected to the new standards, including Malibu, before they were adopted. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board revised the permit to include language addressing the possibility of third-party lawsuits, which had been a concern for the City of Malibu. 

Under the revised permit, cities have the right to draft individual treatment plans and take them to the board for approval. Crucially, the revised language acknowledges that if a city is following its own board-approved stormwater treatment plan, a third party cannot file suit against any reported pollutant exceedances, though the water board can still hold cities accountable for exceedances. 

Still, city officials say the new standards leave the city too open to litigation. 

“As long as the city starts to get into compliance, we shouldn’t be held responsible in a courtroom for it,” Mayor Lou La Monte said in a telephone interview Monday. “That provision wasn’t there before.” 

City Manager Jim Thorsen added that attaining compliance with the regional water board on an individual treatment plan was not a sure thing. 

“Getting plans approved by the board is not going to be an easy task,” he said. 

But Kirsten James, the water quality director for the environmentalist group Heal the Bay, disagreed that cities had gotten a raw deal, instead saying that the board let cities off too easy with the new permit. James argues that once a city’s plan is approved, there is no assurance of enforcement from the board even if stormwater continues to exceed pollution standards. 

“The way the adopted permit is set up is it’s somewhat a scheme of regulation,” she said. “If a city develops a plan and implements that plan, then they’re off the hook basically.” 

Maria Mehranian, the chair of the regional board, defended the revised permit. She said municipalities now have the opportunity to approach watershed problems with more flexibility. Cities such as Malibu can put together plans based on individual water quality history, Mehranian said. She said cities still face fines for exceedances. 

“The permit is ambitious in a sense that it’s not going to let things fly because we have the TMDLs in place. If [cities] don’t have the TMDLs met, they’re still on the hook,” Mehranian said. 

Thorsen said he still has questions about the possibility of third-party lawsuits and plans to bring them up at a State Water Resources Control Board meeting on Nov. 20 during which the state board will hear testimony on the new permit. 

“The language [in the revised permit] is not easily understood… hence our concern,” Thorsen said in an email. 

Another contentious issue for Malibu has been the financial cost of drafting and implementing a new stormwater treatment plan. 

Thorsen argues that Malibu has already spent $60 million in the last decade on maintaining clean water and permit compliance. The city could end up having to spend millions more to comply with the new standards, Thorsen said, drastically hindering its finances. 

“We’ve been spending a minimum of $1,000 per parcel on average [on clean water programs] and we feel this certainly is a lot tougher to follow,” Thorsen said. 

La Monte acknowledged the expenses and said the city would be working to keep its water clean while also trying to maintain a balanced budget. 

“Water quality is one of our biggest issues really,” La Monte said. “We want it to be clean, within reality.” 

The new permit requirements take effect Dec. 28. 

Jimy Tallal contributed to this report. 

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