The great blue heron stood motionless on the edge of Legg Lake in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. A few hundred yards away, a young man cast his lure into the manmade waterway fed by runoff flowing from a culvert under the 60 Freeway.
While the heron and the fisherman could fit inside a Norman Rockwell painting, the picture doesn't tell the full story.
The lake is polluted. The water's full of trash, copper and zinc from automobile brake pad linings and too much nitrogen in the form of ammonia, creating an algae bloom that sucks the oxygen out of the lake, according to state and county sources.
"The lake looks so inviting," began Hector Bordas, engineer with the county Department of Public Works, during a tour of storm water hot spots last week. "It would be nice to go in the lake but you can't swim in there. You can't touch it. You can't come in contact with the water because it could affect your health."
The storm drain tour was held to convince journalists, cities and nonprofits of the problem of untreated storm water in inland lakes, rivers and coastal areas, and the need for a permanent storm-water treatment funding source. The county, along with the city of Los Angeles, pointed out two parks that double as storm-water filtration plants as possible models for future planning.
While the problem may be as hidden as the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers are to most Southland residents, the county, nonprofit groups and regulatory agencies have been aware of the situation for decades.
"Storm water is the No. 1 source of pollution to our beaches and oceans," said Matthew King, communications director for Heal the Bay, which works to clean Santa Monica Bay and inland waterways of storm water pollutants. The group is concentrating on educating the public about picking up their dogs' wastes and not littering. Because, in the parlance of their famous blue-stencil campaign, all gutter waste "drains to the ocean."
In fact, runoff after a rainstorm doesn't stay put. Even the Legg Lake runoff eventually flows down the Rio Hondo, which connects with the L.A. River, which empties into the ocean. Likewise, the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena feeds into the L.A. River, as does the runoff from streets in the San Fernando Valley, downtown L.A. and the South Bay.
The county wants people to know two things about urban runoff. First, it is polluted. And second, it does not get treated as does waste water from toilets and shower drains. Hence, when people come into contact with it, they can get sick.
Researchers found urban runoff sickens 640,000 to 1.4 million people who visit L.A. and Orange counties' beaches each year. Mostly, swimmers come down with diarrhea, sore throats and pink eye. Those at highest risk are children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Then there's the economic impact. Businesses lose money when beaches are closed. People visiting beaches in both counties generate about $3.5 billion in expenditures during about 129 million trips each year, the county reported citing a study in the Journal of Environmental Management.
While the cities and the county are charged with fixing the problem by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and the federal EPA, money is a major roadblock.
"When it comes to budgeting, cities have to make some hard choices," said Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the county DPW.
With cities closing fire stations or teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, storm water cleanup is not a priority.
So the county is proposing the Clean Water, Clean Beaches initiative, which will raise $275 million a year by charging 2.2 million parcels in the county a fee. A single-family home would pay about $54 a year; a big-box store would pay $15,000.
Notices about the new county proposal reached property owners during the past two weeks. A public hearing is scheduled before the Board of Supervisors Jan. 15. Protest votes can be mailed to the county. The county could launch a mail-in ballot in March. The measure needs a simple majority of votes to pass.
"The Flood Control District is taking a leading role with all the different communities to find a way to solve this. This is part of the funding measure. We want to find ways to fix Legg Lake so the community can enjoy it to the fullest," Bordas said during the tour.
Bordas and others also pointed out solutions along the way. Some are low-tech, such as the 120,000 screens installed on street drains to stop trash from reaching the rivers.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority built Vista Hermosa Natural Park out of an old oil field. The former Los Angeles Unified School District site located on a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles is now a 10-acre natural park with sycamores, oaks, willows and poplars - all native plants.
Storm water drains to underground cisterns built to store 20,000 gallons of rainwater, said Dash Stolarz, spokesperson for the MRCA. The park materials allow rainwater to pass to the underground aquifer.
"The land becomes the pipe," said Mia Lehrer, the landscape architect who created the park's design.
If the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measures passes, the county can begin similar projects that will restore brownfields or re-energize polluted parks like Legg Lake in Whittier Narrows.
"We are looking at 500 parks throughout the county that are potential projects," he said.