Your Urban Drool (aka Polluted Runoff) Isn't Being Cleaned Up Quickly Enough, Says Heal The Bay

The Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach circulates and cleans stormwater runoff. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

Angelenos are used to looking up Heal the Bay's annual beach water quality report card each May as we search out the cleanest places to swim and surf.

Now, the environmental advocacy group is focusing on a new target — the often polluted water that flows into the ocean from the mountains and across the L.A. Basin.

In a first-ever report, it concludes the managers of 12 watersheds from Malibu to Long Beach are making too little progress toward cleaning up this major source of pollution in the Pacific.

We're talking about the water that runs during storms into local creeks and the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers, and automotive pollution that runs into storm channels.

But it's not just during storms. It's also dry weather runoff known as urban drool, where wasteful watering, like poorly aimed sprinklers, wash pollution into storm drains.

However it gets into our waterways, it's all bad stuff — bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, and trash — as well as fertilizers from agricultural fields and industrial discharges.

As the pollution runs into the Pacific it can injure sea life and swimmers.

That's why health officials caution people not to swim or surf within 72 hours after a rainstorm, because all that germy garbage has washed into the ocean.

HOW SLOW IS THE CLEANUP?

Goals were set in 2012 that were supposed to be reached in the early 2020s. Heal the Bay says progress is so slow that at this pace, it could take decades to reach them. With a few exceptions, the watershed management groups had accomplished less than 10% of their plans.

Watersheds with the least progress included those feeding into Malibu Creek, Ballona, Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Upper San Gabriel River and the Upper Los Angeles River.

One example given was the goal of capturing and cleaning stormwater. Nine watershed managers were supposed to have together captured more than 12,000 acre-feet of runoff, but had managed to grab only 1,000 acre feet.

That water also plays another role: once cleaned of pollutants, it can augment the region's limited supply of drinking water.

WHAT ARE THE BRIGHT SPOTS?

The report highlighted the Dominguez Channel watershed, where managers had already surpassed their 2026 goal, in part because it has been used as a test site for innovative stormwater cleaning projects.

One such project is a 9-acre wetlands park that used to be a Metro bus parking lot in South Los Angeles, according to Heal the Bay water quality scientist Annelisa Moe, who wrote the report. Another, she said, is the Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach.

Both places are engineered to grab water from the Dominguez Channel, circulate it around a parklike setting in a way that cleans it and filters out the bad stuff, and then sends it underground or on to the ocean.

WHY IS HEAL THE BAY CALLING OUT SLOW PROGRESS NOW?

It's about the timing and the money.

Early next year, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency that oversees waterway polluters, is going to set new goals and deadlines, as it does about every five years. So highlighting slow progress now can put pressure on the board to set stricter targets.

In terms of money, some of the slow progress is due to the high cost of installing new projects.

However, there will be more money very soon, about double what's been available in recent years.

Last year, voters approved Measure W, the "Safe Clean Water" parcel tax. It charges property owners one-half cent for every square foot of land that water cannot soak into.

That will start $285 million per year flowing in 2020, to be used in stormwater cleaning projects across Los Angeles County.

With all that money coming in, Heal the Bay wants to pressure the regional water board and watershed managers to spend the money wisely and to hold everybody accountable for meeting the new goals.