Stormwater: From Pollutant to Potential

Frank Lopez found solace at Playa Del Rey Beach. With a fishing rod in hand, he relished the memories of his younger years, fishing in the shimmering waters. However, recent times presented a stark contrast. The waves brought more than just their rhythmic motion; they also carried debris, trash, and an undeniable murkiness. Post-rain visits to the beach revealed a harsh reality: diminishing water quality, an abundance of garbage, and a noticeable scarcity of fish.

“I’ve been fishing here since I was a kid,” Frank lamented, “But it feels like the beach is changing. It’s not just about not catching any fish; it’s about the entire ecosystem.”

Living adjacent to the beach, Frank witnessed its daily transformation. What were once crystal-clear waters now bore the scars of pollution. Rainstorms particularly intensified this, flushing in a plethora of floating refuse. Specifically, the pollution consists of various contaminants, including plastic debris, chemical runoff from streets, and other pollutants. “The rain used to refresh, now it’s a reminder of the pollution it brings.”

Los Angeles’ struggle with pollution, especially stormwater management, offers context to Frank’s observations. The city’s storm sewage system (MS4), designed to divert rainwater, inadvertently funneled contaminants from the streets straight into water bodies such as rivers and the ocean. Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of LA Waterkeeper, is an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the region’s water bodies, and he expressed concerns over this. He stressed the community’s right to enforce environmental laws, particularly when institutions falter.

“One of the most important aspects of environmental laws, including the federal Clean Water Act, is that it provides communities with the opportunity to stand in the shoes of our law enforcement officials and litigate to enforce those laws when the agencies entrusted to do so fail to act.”

This stormwater pollution was recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the number one source of pollution into surface waters in urban areas, like Los Angeles. After rainfall, nearly 100 billion gallons of contaminated stormwater surged through the storm drain system and into local waters. The water is contaminated with a mix of pollutants, including heavy metals, chemicals, and pathogens.

Environmental agencies have consistently advocated for better stormwater management practices. Municipal stormwater permits, like the MS4, set the standards for this. Better stormwater management practices would include increased filtration and treatment of stormwater before it reaches natural water bodies, reducing the flow of pollutants.

Historically, in 2001, the Board’s MS4 permit was celebrated for its strict regulations on untreated stormwater discharge. Yet, in 2012, pressured by municipalities, a “safe harbor” provision was introduced. This allowed municipalities to claim compliance by merely adopting plans, regardless of actual pollution levels in their outflows. The plans that municipalities adopt often involve infrastructure changes and improved stormwater treatment systems.

By 2021, environmentalists hoped for a reversal of this provision, advocating for more rigorous management. But their efforts appeared futile when the Board retained the “safe harbor” clause. LA Waterkeeper and similar entities have warned of the dire consequences of untreated urban runoff. They opine that such provisions lack urgency, allowing municipalities to evade responsibility.

The 6-1 endorsement of the permit by the Board revealed a concerning mindset among those in power. Despite clear signs of deteriorating water quality, the Board seemed indifferent. The community, despite voicing concerns emphatically, felt unheard. Their primary request was simple: ensure true accountability by eliminating the “deemed in compliance” provision. Community leaders and organizations like LA Waterkeeper have been vocal in their advocacy for cleaner water practices.

California’s water crisis brings to the fore an innovative yet sustainable answer: stormwater capture. This method not only prevents water from becoming a pollutant but also taps into an underutilized resource.

The rising popularity of stormwater capture offers a beacon of hope. Rather than allowing stormwater to flood oceans with impurities, the strategy involves its collection, purification, and repurposing. This not only combats water pollution but also augments the local water reservoir and aids in replenishing groundwater. Employing nature-centric solutions, like green landscapes, promises dual benefits: enhanced water quality and community welfare. It’s a comprehensive strategy, emphasizing a balanced approach to a valuable resource.

Stormwater capture works by collecting rainwater and directing it into storage systems or treatment facilities where it is purified and then used for various purposes, such as irrigation or replenishing groundwater.

Reznik underscores stormwater’s potential, highlighting its transformative nature: “Stormwater, currently a leading pollutant, has the potential to be a vital water source.” Its capture, treatment, and repurpose could significantly mitigate pollution and boost local water resources. The strategy encompasses groundwater seepage and local utilization, meaning that the treated water can be reintroduced into the local water supply.

But the marvel of this solution extends beyond mere water conservation. Adopting green solutions, like foliage-rich landscapes, involves planting vegetation and creating natural filtration systems to capture and treat stormwater. This offers a trifold advantage: ecological restoration, societal health, and resilience against climate changes. As Reznik puts forth, green solutions promise comprehensive benefits, presenting a well-rounded answer to an intricate challenge.

The advantages of stormwater capture are palpable. Yet, its adoption remains frustratingly gradual. The EPA has consistently identified stormwater as a pollution catalyst, more so in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles. Rain typically brings with it an overwhelming 100 billion gallons of contaminated stormwater through the city’s drainage. Such colossal quantities signify squandered opportunities of water that could’ve been reclaimed and reused.

What’s causing this inertia? Primarily, it’s entrenched infrastructure practices. Historical engineering practices emphasized rapidly channeling stormwater away using cemented pathways, which impede natural seepage and leave groundwater reserves depleted.

A transformative approach is now imperative. California acknowledges this, targeting a groundwater recharge enhancement of about 500,000 acre-feet by 2040. However, the path is arduous. Even promising ventures, like the one near Merced aiming at redirecting surplus water for basin recharge, which involves directing excess stormwater into underground basins to replenish groundwater, are progressing at a snail’s pace.

Frank, witnessing these challenges from his coastal residence, grew more active in community debates concerning stormwater governance. “Fishing isn’t just a pastime for me,” expressed Frank, “It’s my bond with nature, a way to resonate with this environment. If we turn a blind eye to this pollution, I dread the beach’s future transformation. It’s not just a personal concern, but a worry for the succeeding generations.”