Water Quality in L.A. Hits a Milestone

Clean Water Act Heal the Bay consent decree TMDL Los Angeles

It’s not every day that we get to report some good news.  But today, reflecting on the last 14 years, we can confidently say that our local beaches and creeks are on a solid path for improved water quality.

In fact, earlier this month, we reached a big milestone in the effort to clean up our local waterways.  July marks the end of a 14-year consent decree that resulted from a 1999 legal settlement among USEPA, Heal the Bay, NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper (now LA Waterkeeper).  Through the consent decree USEPA committed to approve Total Maximum Daily Loads or “TMDLs” for an extensive list of water bodies in the Los Angeles Region (Los Angeles and Ventura counties). 

What is a TMDL?  TMDLs are a calculation of the maximum amount of pollution that a waterbody (river, lake or the ocean) can handle before it can no longer meet its beneficial uses (i.e. habitat and recreation).  By developing and implementing TMDLs, water quality improves. In fact, TMDLs are arguably the most useful tool in the Clean Water Act toolbox environmental groups like ours have to actually clean up Southern California’s coastal waters and watersheds.  Prior to the consent decree, we hadn’t seen any quantitative or enforceable limits developed. 

As a result of this effort, 57 TMDLS have  been established for over 175 water bodies that address numerous pollutant impairments including elevated bacteria, metals, pesticides, PCBs and trash. Heal the Bay provided technical input on all of these TMDLs.  In addition, we had a major success late last year when the TMDLs were placed within the municipal stormwater permit, and therefore, became enforceable. 

Most importantly, as a result of these TMDLs, our creeks and beaches are on the path towards getting cleaner.  We see success stories throughout the region.  For instance as we noted in the last two Heal the Bay Beach Report Cards, low flow diversion projects implemented by the City of Los Angeles have resulted in much improved beach water quality at those locations (A and B grades, up from D and F grades).  Also the trash TMDLs have prevented millions of pounds of trash from reaching the Santa Monica Bay.

We still have a long way to go – many of the TMDLs will be implemented for years to come (some 20+ years into the future!).  For instance, we look forward to the implementation of Malibu Creek and Lagoon TMDL for Sedimentation and Nutrients to Address Benthic Community Impairments that was the final TMDL to be adopted under the consent decree.  Heal the Bay has been focused  on the Malibu Watershed for over a decade, and our data collection efforts highlighted this impairment.  

Heal the Bay will continue to push the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to ensure that this TMDL and others are implemented and enforced.  We will also ensure that the TMDLs that are reconsidered uphold the strongest scientific backing (for instance the Marina del Rey Harbor Toxics TMDL and Ballona Creek Toxics and Metals TMDL are being reopened in the coming month.)

 But it is gratifying to look back over the past 14 years and see that our hard work and the efforts of many other stakeholders, including USEPA and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, have paid off.

--  Kirsten James

--  Heal the Bay’s Science and Policy Director, Water Quality

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