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Natural Resources v. County of Los Angeles

March 10, 2011


D.C. No. 2:08-cv-01467- Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Howard Matz, District Judge, Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr.


Argued and Submitted December 10, 2010-Pasadena, California

Before: Harry Pregerson, and Milan D. Smith, Jr., Circuit Judges, and H. Russel Holland, Senior District Judge.*fn1


M. SMITH, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs-Appellants Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of two municipal entities that Plaintiffs allege are discharging polluted stormwater in violation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (the Clean Water Act, Act, or CWA), 86 Stat. 816, codified as amended at 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq. Plaintiffs contend that Defendants-Appellees County of Los Angeles (County) and Los Angeles County Flood Control District (District) are discharging polluted urban stormwater runoff collected by municipal separate storm sewer systems (ms4) into navigable waters in Southern California. The levels of pollutants detected in four rivers- the Santa Clara River, the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, and Malibu Creek (collectively, the Watershed Rivers) -exceed the limits allowed in a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit which governs municipal stormwater discharges in the County. Although all parties agree that numerous water-quality standards have been exceeded in the Watershed Rivers, Defendants contend that there is no evidence establishing their responsibility for, or discharge of, stormwater carrying pollutants to the rivers. The district court agreed with Defendants and entered a partial final judgment.

We conclude that the district court erred with respect to the evidence of discharges by the District into two of the Water-shed Rivers-the Los Angeles River and San Gabriel River. Specifically, Plaintiffs provided evidence that the monitoring stations for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers are located in a section of ms4 owned and operated by the District and, after stormwater known to contain standards-exceeding pollutants passes through these monitoring stations, this polluted stormwater is discharged into the two rivers. Accordingly, Plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment on the District's liability for discharges into the Los Angeles River and San Gabriel River, and therefore we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the District on these claims.

Plaintiffs, however, failed to meet their evidentiary burden with respect to discharges by the District into the Santa Clara River and Malibu Creek. Plaintiffs did not provide evidence sufficient for the district court to determine if stormwater discharged from an ms4 controlled by the District caused or contributed to pollution exceedances located in these two rivers. Similarly, Plaintiffs did not delineate how stormwater from ms4s controlled by the County caused or contributed to exceedances in any of the Watershed Rivers. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Defendants on these claims.


I. Stormwater Runoff in Los Angeles County

A. The MS4

Stormwater runoff is surface water generated by precipitation events, such as rainstorms, which flows over streets, parking lots, commercial sites, and other developed parcels of land. Whereas natural, vegetated soil can absorb rainwater and capture pollutants, paved surfaces and developed land can do neither. When stormwater flows over urban environs, it collects "suspended metals, sediments, algae-promoting nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), floatable trash, used motor oil, raw sewage, pesticides, and other toxic contaminants[.]" Envtl. Def. Ctr., Inc. v. EPA, 344 F.3d 832, 840 (9th Cir. 2003). This runoff is a major contributor to water pollution in Southern California rivers and the Pacific Ocean and contributes to the sickening of many ocean users each year.

The County is a sprawling 4,500 square-mile amalgam of populous incorporated cities and significant swaths of unincorporated land. The District is a public entity governed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Public Works. The District is comprised of 84 cities and some unincorporated areas of the County. The County and the District are separate legal entities.

In the District, stormwater runoff is collected by thousands of storm drains located in each municipality and channeled to a storm sewer system. The municipalities in the District operate ms4s*fn2 to collect and channel stormwater. The County also operates an ms4 for certain unincorporated areas. Unlike a sanitary sewer system, which transports municipal sewage for treatment at a wastewater facility, or a combined sewer system, which transports sewage and stormwater for treatment, ms4s contain and convey only untreated stormwater. See 40 C.F.R. § 122.26(a)(7), (b)(8). In the County, municipal ms4s are "highly interconnected" because the District allows each municipality to connect its storm drains to the District's extensive flood-control and storm-sewer infrastructure (the MS4).*fn3 That infrastructure includes 500 miles of open channels and 2,800 miles of storm drains. The length of the [MS4] system, and the locations of all storm drain connections, are not known exactly, as a comprehensive map of the storm drain system does not exist. While the number and location of storm drains are too numerous to catalogue, it is undisputed that the MS4 collects and channels stormwater runoff from across the County. That stormwater is channeled in the MS4 to various watercourses including the four Watershed Rivers at the heart of this litigation: the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, the Santa Clara River, and Malibu Creek. The Watershed Rivers drain into the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica Bay, Los Angeles Harbor, and Long Beach Harbor.

The gravamen of Plaintiffs' action is that by allowing untreated and heavily-polluted stormwater to flow unabated from the MS4 into the Watershed Rivers, and eventually into the Pacific Ocean, Defendants have violated the Clean Water Act.

B. The Clean Water Act and NPDES Permit

The Clean Water Act is the nation's primary water-pollution-control law. The Act's purpose is "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a). "To serve those ends, the Act prohibits 'the discharge of any pollutant by any person' unless done in compliance with some provision of the Act." S. Fl. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95, 102 (2004) (quoting 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a)). "Discharge of a pollutant" is defined as "any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source[.]" 33 U.S.C. § 1362(12); see Comm. to Save Mokelumne River v. East Bay Mun. Util. Dist., 13 F.3d 305, 308 (9th Cir. 1993) (characterizing "discharge" as " 'add[ing]' pollutants from the outside world to navigable water").

Under the Clean Water Act, ms4s fall under the definition of "point sources." 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14). A point source is "any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged." 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14).

A person or entity wishing to add pollutants to navigable waters must comply with the NPDES, which "requires dischargers to obtain permits that place limits on the type and quantity of pollutants that can be released into the Nation's waters." Miccosukee Tribe, 541 U.S. at 102; 33 U.S.C. § 1342(a), (p). The Act "generally prohibits the 'discharge of any pollutant' . . . from a 'point source' into the navigable waters of the United States' " unless the point source is covered by an NPDES permit. Defenders of Wildlife v. Browner, 191 F.3d 1159, 1163 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a), 1362(12)(A)) (emphasis added); see also Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. 91, 101-02 (1992) (describing NPDES permitting system). An NPDES permit requires its holder-the "permittee"-to follow the requirements of numerous Clean Water Act provisions, see 33 U.S.C. § 1342(a), which include effluent limitations, water-quality standards, water monitoring obligations, public reporting mechanisms, and certain discharge requirements. See id. §§ 1311, 1312, 1314, 1316, 1317, 1318, 1343.

The Act uses two water-quality-performance standards, by which a discharger of water may be evaluated-"effluent limitations" and "water quality standards." Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. at 101 (citing 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311, 1313, 1314); see also Sierra Club v. Union Oil Co. of Calif., 813 F.2d 1480, 1483 (9th Cir. 1987), vacated on other grounds, 485 U.S. 931 (1988), reinstated, 853 F.2d 667 (9th Cir. 1988). An effluent limitation is "any restriction established by a State or the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] Administrator on quantities, rates, and concentrations of chemical, physical, biological, and other constituents which are discharged from point sources into navigable waters. . . ." 33 U.S.C. § 1362(11). An effluent-limitation guideline is determined in light of " 'the best practicable control technology currently available.' " Union Oil, 813 F.2d at 1483 (quoting 33 U.S.C. § 1311(b)(1)(A)).

Water-quality standards "are used as a supplementary basis for effluent limitations, so that numerous dischargers, despite their individual compliance with technology-based limita- tions, can be regulated to prevent water quality from falling below acceptable levels." Union Oil, 813 F.2d at 1483 (citing EPA v. Calif. ex rel. State Water Res. Control Bd., 426 U.S. 200, 205 n.12 (1976) (hereafter EPA v. Calif.)). Water-quality standards are developed in a two-step process. First, the EPA, or state water authorities establish a waterway's "beneficial use." Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. EPA, 16 F.3d 1395, 1400 (4th Cir. 1993); see also Cal. Water Code § 13050(f) (" 'Beneficial uses' of the waters of the state that may be protected against quality degradation include, but are not limited to, domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial supply; power generation; recreation; aesthetic enjoyment; navigation; and preservation and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources or preserves."). Once the beneficial use is determined, water quality criteria that will yield the desired water conditions are formulated and implemented. See NRDC v. EPA, 16 F.3d at 1400; see also 33 U.S.C. § 1313(a), (c)(2)(A); 40 C.F.R. § 131.3(i) ("Water quality standards are provisions of State or Federal law which consist of a designated use or uses for the waters of the United States and water quality criteria for such waters based upon such uses.").

Unlike effluent limitations, which are promulgated by the EPA to achieve a certain level of pollution reduction in light of available technology, water-quality standards emanate from the state boards charged with managing their domestic water resources. See Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. at 101. The EPA gives the states guidance in drafting water-quality standards and "state authorities periodically review water quality standards and secure the EPA's approval of any revisions in the standards." Id.

The EPA has authorized the State of California to develop water-quality standards and issue NPDES permits. Under the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, California state law designates the State Water Resources Control Board and nine regional boards as the principal state agencies for enforcing federal and state water pollution law and for issuing per- mits. See Cal. Water Code §§ 13000, 13001, 13140, 13240, 13370, 13377. Beginning in 1990, the California State Water Resources Control Board for the Los Angeles Region (the Regional Board) issued an NPDES permit (the Permit) to cover stormwater discharges by the County, the District, and 84 incorporated municipalities in the County (collectively the Permittees or Co-Permittees).*fn4 See City of Arcadia v. State Water Res. Control Bd., 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 232, 240-41 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010). The Permit was renewed in 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2007.

The Permit is divided into two broad sections: findings by the Regional Board and an order authorizing and governing the Permittees' discharges (Order). The findings cover many introductory and background subjects, including a history of NPDES permitting in the County; applicable state and federal laws governing stormwater discharges; studies conducted by the County and researchers about the deleterious effects of polluted stormwater; coverage and implementation provisions; and guidelines for administrative review of Permit provisions. The Permit covers "all areas within the boundaries of the Permittee municipalities . . . over which they have regulatory jurisdiction as well as unincorporated areas in Los Angeles County within the jurisdiction of the Regional Board." In total, the Permit governs municipal stormwater discharge across more than 3,100 square miles of land in the County.

The Permit relates the many federal and state regulations governing stormwater discharges to Southern California's watercourses. Among these regulations is the Water Quality Control Plan for the Los Angeles Region (the Basin Plan). Under California law, the regional boards' "water quality plans, called 'basin plans,' must address the beneficial uses to be protected as well as water quality objectives, and they must establish a program of implementation." City of Arcadia, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 240 (quoting City of Burbank v. State Water Res. Control Bd., 108 P.3d 862, 865 (Cal. 2005) (citing Cal. Water Code § 13050(j))). The Permit provides that "[t]he Basin Plan designates beneficial uses of receiving waters and specifies both narrative and numerical water quality objectives for the receiving water in Los Angeles County." "Receiving waters" are defined as "all surface water bodies in the Los Angeles Region that are identified in the Basin Plan." "Permittees are to assure that storm water discharges from the MS4 shall neither cause nor contribute to the exceedance of water quality standards and objectives nor create conditions of nuisance in the receiving waters, and that the discharge of non-storm water to the MS4 has been effectively prohibited." The Permit incorporates and adopts the Basin Plan, which sets limits on bacteria and contaminants for the receiving waters of Southern California. The water-quality standards limit, among other pollutants, the levels of ammonia, fecal coliform bacteria, arsenic, mercury, and cyanide in Southern California's inland rivers.

The Permit contains myriad prohibitions and conditions regarding discharges into and from the MS4. Under Part 1, the Permittees are directed to "effectively prohibit non-storm water discharges into the MS4 and watercourses" unless allowed by an NPDES permit. Under Part 2, titled "Receiving Water Limitations," "discharges from the MS4 that cause or contribute to the violation of the Water Quality Standards or water quality objectives are prohibited." The "Water Quality Standards and Water Quality Objectives" are defined in the Permit as "water quality criteria contained in the Basin Plan, the California Ocean Plan, the National Toxics Rule, the California Toxics Rule, and other state or federal approved surface water quality plans. Such plans are used by the Regional Board to regulate all discharges, including storm water discharges."

The Permit provides that Permittees "shall comply" with the MS4 discharge prohibitions "through timely implementa- tion of control measures and other actions to reduce pollutants in the discharges in accordance with [the Los Angeles Storm-water Quality Management Program (SQMP)] and its components and other requirements of this Order. . . ." The SQMP includes "descriptions of programs, collectively developed by the Permittees in accordance with provisions of the NPDES Permit, to comply with applicable federal and state law." The Permit sets out a procedure to ensure Permittee compliance when any water-quality standards are breached:

a) Upon a determination by either the Permittee or the Regional Board that discharges are causing or contributing to an exceedance of an applicable Water Quality Standard, the Permittee shall promptly notify and thereafter submit a Receiving Water Limitations (RWL) Compliance Report . . . to the Regional Board that describes [Best Management Practices (BMPs)] that are currently being implemented and additional BMPs that will be implemented to prevent or reduce any pollutants that are causing or contributing to the exceedances of Water Quality Standards. . . .

c) Within 30 days following the approval of the RWL Compliance Report, the Permittee shall revise the SQMP and its components and monitoring program to incorporate the approved modified BMPs that have been and will be implemented, an implementation schedule, and any additional monitoring required.

d) Implement the revised SQMP and its components and monitoring program according to the approved schedule.

. . . So long as the Permittee has complied with the procedures set forth above and is implementing the revised SQMP and its components, the Permittee does not have to repeat the same procedure for continuing or recurring exceedances of the same receiving water limitations unless directed by the Regional Board to develop additional BMPs.

When a violation arises, a Permittee must adhere to the procedures in its Compliance Report ...

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