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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 9:32 PM

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Turning filthy runoff into drinking water

Los Angeles officials are trying to deal with rainwater runoff that dirties the beaches and another problem — the lack of drinking water — with an ambitious plan to make the runoff drinkable.

The New York Times

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LOS ANGELES — Surfers here have long lived by a simple rule: When it rains, no matter how good the waves may be, stay out of the water. Those who do head out to the Venice Pier on a rainy day might have their bravery (or naiveté) repaid with pink eye, a fever or diarrhea.

“The water will have this weird, funky smell to it,” said Sean Stanley, 26, who has been surfing here his entire life. “It’s murky. You’ll see soda cans and plastic bottles, oil from the cars. All the runoff from the city gets in there.”

Even in this water-starved region, storm and other runoff has become the primary source of water pollution. After the rare rains, runoff drags heavy metals, pesticides, cigarette butts, animal waste and other pollutants into streams and rivers and eventually to the Pacific Ocean, turning Los Angeles County’s beaches into the filthiest in the state.

But now, local officials are trying to deal with runoff pollution and another problem — the lack of drinking water — with an ambitious plan to make the runoff drinkable.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has issued new rules that include strong incentives for cities to work together on projects that capture and filter rainwater in the ground. Not only would those projects keep runoff pollution out of the waterways, they also would bolster groundwater supplies, which eventually could be used for drinking water.

Jared Blumenfeld, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator for California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii, said Los Angeles County was the first to try to deal with stormwater and drinking water in an integrated way, calling the plan ”a really important step forward in thinking about stormwater.”

“If you think about how much money we spend getting water to Los Angeles from elsewhere, the potential for rainwater capture is great,” he said. “Integrating that goal into a plan to deal with stormwater before it becomes a problem is a big innovation coming out of Los Angeles.”

Just about everyone around here likes the idea of developing a new source of drinking water. Southern Californians already have explored almost all potential sources of drinking supplies — desalinated seawater, groundwater in the desert and even wastewater that has been treated and recycled.

The question is how to pay for it.

Regional projects to capture stormwater by using soil and plants that naturally absorb and filter the water — unlike the concrete that lines so many of the waterways here — are often expensive, and those costs threaten to derail the Southern California plan.

County supervisors have proposed a fee on property owners that would raise $290 million a year to finance a project to mitigate runoff pollution. It was put on hold indefinitely last month amid loud objections. For major landowners, like school districts, the plan would cost millions. That would force even deeper cuts to districts that have already laid off teachers and increased class sizes.

One City Council member from Santa Clarita, which is not a coastal city, mocked the fee as “a tax on God’s good rain.” Another Santa Clarita council member said the city’s residents were already paying a fee to finance a city program to keep runoff pollution out of the country’s waterways.

“What we don’t understand is why we have to pay another fee on top of what we already pay,” the council member, Marsha McLean, said at a recent meeting of the county supervisors. “Our residents can’t afford it. The city can’t afford it.”

Los Angeles is hardly alone in its problems with stormwater, which has become a primary source of pollution around the country, especially in urban areas as the Clean Water Act — passed by Congress four decades ago — has forced the cleanup of wastewater and runoff from industrial facilities.

But the incentive to tackle the problem is greater here, not only because of the dearth of drinking water, but because the beaches play such a vital role in the region’s economy, bringing billions of dollars into the county each year.

Los Angeles County is home to seven of the 10 most polluted beaches in California. Malibu, a city known for its oceanfront, is home to four of those beaches, according to Heal the Bay, an environmental group that grades beaches based on health risks.

In all, up to 1.8 million people experience stomach problems each year after visiting Los Angeles County beaches, which are sometimes closed when bacteria levels in the water get too high, according to a 2008 study cited by the county.

Although the regional water board issued very few fines to cities over toxin levels in the past decade, many experts expect that will change under the new regulations.

“It could actually bankrupt some agencies with costs and penalties,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles County supervisor whose district includes much of the coastline. “This is a very expensive proposition, but we have no choice.”

Opponents of the new regulations, including some cities, hope to have the rules thrown out.

Some have filed petitions to the state water board, claiming that the regulations do not follow state and federal water guidelines. Others have said it is the state’s responsibility to ensure water quality.

Even environmental groups object to a provision that exempts cities from testing for pollution levels in stormwater if they adopt a regional plan to capture runoff in the ground.

The issue of who is ultimately responsible for runoff pollution could wind up back in court.

Kirsten James, director of water-quality policy at Heal the Bay, argued that in the long-run investment in a new supply of drinking water could save money.

”Looking at the skyrocketing costs of imported water,” she said, “it will be much more economical for our region to have stormwater as a drinking-water source.”

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