LAW vs. The Water Boards: Why We Sued

This blog is the first installment of a series authored by LAW Staff Attorney, Arthur Pugsley. Read the second installment here

Los Angeles Waterkeeper (LAW) filed suit in Los Angeles on July 18 seeking to overturn approvals by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control (LARB) to relax water quality standards in the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. This blog is the first in a series of articles by LAW Staff Attorney Arthur Pugsley discussing this case, and will focus on why we brought suit.

The new “Site Specific Objectives” (SSOs) approved by LARB and SWRCB (agencies collectively known as the “Water Boards”) weaken the baseline water quality standards for copper in some areas by as much as 969%, and on average by about 400%.  The new SSOs also greatly relax regulations controlling the amount of lead in the river and its tributaries.  This case is important for anyone who cares about the ongoing struggle to reclaim the environmental, cultural, social, recreational, and economic benefits of the LA River, and the struggle for those in the surrounding communities for a cleaner environment for themselves and their children.

Municipalities (as well as the County and Caltrans) discharge generally untreated stormwater and treated sewage into the river and its tributaries. The permits they receive require them to meet certain water quality standards and expose them to fines, enforcement action and/or lawsuits if they fail to meet those standards.  However, the new SSOs are so weak that these municipalities would no longer have to treat water for copper and lead prior to discharge.

The Water Boards are effectively saying that copper and lead pollution just aren’t a problem in the LA River.

The weakening of the standards comes at a time when the LA River is just beginning to recover from a century of abuse and neglect.  For example, the City of Los Angeles, in partnership with the federal government, recently approved a $1.4 billion project to remove concrete channels and concrete river bottom along an 11-mile stretch of the river, and to acquire hundreds of acres in the floodplain along the river in the Glendale Narrows area. This will allow at least partial restoration of a functioning riparian ecosystem and floodplain and reestablish an ecological link and natural corridor between the Verdugo Mountains and the Santa Monica/San Gabriel Mountains. The effort also involves development of public parks.

This project is forward-looking and significant. For the first time in decades, public agencies have proposed—and now made a significant financial commitment—to reduce the concrete straightjacket severing the river from its surroundings and environment.  With the City and federal government looking ahead to a cleaner, more functional river, why are the state Water Boards moving in the opposite direction, seemingly shrugging their shoulders and saying “what pollution?” That is a question we should all be asking our elected officials.

LAW Staff Attorney Arthur Pugsley handing in the pleadings. Photo courtesy of Aidan Marshall.

LAW Staff Attorney Arthur Pugsley handing in the pleadings. Photo courtesy of Aidan Marshall.

The Water Boards’ attitude towards the LA River seems straight out of the 1950s. But LAW can’t sue over an attitude problem.  We need to have specific reasons why we think the Water Boards violated the law with the specific approvals they made—and we do.  The Water Boards failed to conduct any environmental analysis specific to the new standards. Furthermore,  during the administrative review process, they repeatedly failed to respond adequately (or sometimes at all) to comments and questions criticizing both the methodology of the technical study prepared by the dischargers and the lack of broader environmental analysis to support such a drastic change from the baseline standards. LAW and its partner organizations Heal the Bay and Natural Resources Defense Council worked closely together to provide detailed comments to the Water Boards.

The Water Boards also failed to conduct a proper “Anti-Degradation Analysis,” a type of study required before standards applied to waterways already suffering with too much pollution are weakened further.  To help excuse such a drastic weakening of baseline standards, the Water Boards left open the possibility that the SSOs could be amended or repealed if conditions in the river ever undergo “significant” changes.  But the Water Boards left the definition of  “significant” up to the very dischargers who had just banded together to successfully lobby for weaker standards!

We believe the approvals of the SSOs violated California law, and we’re asking that the Court issue an order (called a Writ of Mandate) for the Water Boards to rescind the approvals, which would restore the much stronger baseline water quality standards.

The next installment reviews the history of regulating extremely polluted (officially known as “impaired”) waterways in the Los Angeles area.  Spoiler alert: It is not a pretty history.


This blog is the first installment of a series authored by LAW Staff Attorney, Arthur Pugsley. Read the second installment here.


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