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The Price of Polluted Runoff

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Sara Aminzadeh
Sara Aminzadeh

Polluted stormwater runoff is the number one source of contamination to California's renowned waters. When it rains, water flows over streets, lawns, and parking lots, carrying a toxic soup of copper, lead, zinc and other heavy metals, oils and car fluids, bacteria, viruses and other harmful materials -- untreated -- to our rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

And when the beaches, rivers and lakes that we use and enjoy for swimming, fishing and drinking are polluted, we all pay the costs. Pervasive polluted runoff threatens California's $9 billion beach economy. Closed beaches and canceled fishing trips translate into lost tourism revenue. And there are significant public health costs when people get sick from swimming in or even coming into contact with contaminated water. Contamination from polluted runoff at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches alone sickens approximately one million swimmers every year, resulting in $21 to $51 million in health costs from doctor visits and lost time at work. And when waters eventually become so seriously polluted that we can no longer use them for swimming, fishing, drinking, or other uses, we pay for the costly cleanup of the mess we've made.

Taxpayer dollars already support public infrastructure to manage runoff, and regulations set requirements for new development or redevelopment projects to reduce their contribution to address this problem. Now is the time for those responsible for existing sources of pollution, the buildings, parking lots, and other structures that make up the vast majority of our urban and suburban landscapes, to do their fair share to prevent pollution. Wednesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), California Coastkeeper Alliance, American Rivers, and Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), jointly filed a petition that calls on EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, to establish requirements to close loopholes that fail to control pollution from existing commercial, industrial, and institutional areas in western states, including California. NRDC also worked with partner groups to file petitions in EPA regions covering New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Stronger water quality regulations have tangible benefits -- a new study demonstrated a relationship between installation of stormwater controls and increased beach attendance at 26 Los Angeles beaches. The study concluded that improving coastal water quality through stronger stormwater controls increased beach attendance by 350,000 to 860,000 people annually at each affected beach, with corresponding benefits to local economies. Too often, discussions about water pollution problems are focused almost exclusively on the cost of regulations, ignoring the cost, largely borne by the public, of the pollution itself. We urge U.S. EPA to use its authority to reduce polluted runoff, protect clean water, and relieve the burden on taxpayers. And while we work to advance long-term solutions to reduce polluted runoff flows to California waters, NRDC, California Coastkeeper Alliance, and other local partners have tools to give you information about the health and safety of your local waters.
  • Download the Waterkeeper Swim Guide smartphone application for up-to-date water quality information about more than 400 California beaches, coves, rivers, and creeks.

Sara Aminzadeh is the Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.
Noah Garrison is an attorney with the National Water Program at NRDC.