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Stormwater permit passes in Los Angeles, backed by county, opposed by some cities, environmental groups

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Regional water regulators have approved a sweeping set of rules that will change the way many cities in Southern California manage stormwater runoff. 

The rules are in the form of a permit that sets limits for almost three dozen pollutants in water, including lead and bacteria. They’ll apply to more than 80 cities and to Los Angeles County, whose assistant director for public works, Mark Pestrella, supports the plan. 

"Really, really when you roll it all up we’re trying to reflect sustainability in what we’re doing," he says.

The previous set of stormwater rules didn’t clean up pollution the way regulators had hoped. Pestrella says these new rules aim to treat stormwater as a potential resource. That means retaining rainfall where it falls rather than letting it run off to the ocean. 

"We actually were able for the first time to get the regional board to look at the water management of the basin in a holistic way," Pestrella says. That means encouraging "low-impact development" or "green infrastructure," approaches that range from rainbarrels to permeable concrete.

Officials from cash-poor cities have complained that it will be too expensive to enact tougher controls on stormwater drainage systems spread over thousands of square miles. Pestrella says L.A. County is proposing a parcel tax to cover the cost.

"The county is stepping up and saying, we’ll act as a regional entity," Pestrella says. "We’ll look at this from a regional perspective and we’ll engage those cities in these efforts. That’s the trust the regional board is putting into the county and the larger cities and we’re going to engage the smaller cities."

Water board chair Maria Mehranian calls L.A.'s new stormwater rules are unprecedented.

"Nobody has done it on this scale....It’s very ambitious and it’s done in a short period of time," she says.

Environmentalists who'd praised water officials for promoting low-impact development critcize the board’s decision. They argue that the new regulations will allow cities to say they’re working on long term pollution controls while failing to slow coastal pollution now. Mehranian says that’s not true. 

"It’s built in the permit that while they’re working on their long term regional solutions, they still have to keep with doing what they were doing so far," she points out.

Mehranian says cities that fail to combat stormwater pollution could face fines. Cities or environmental groups that might object to the water board’s new rules have 30 days to decide whether to appeal. A lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council says his group will likely take the full month to determine what to do.