A sign indicating No Swimming or Wading, one of the reasons is thatthe water is polluted at Legg Lake in Whittier. A Tour of Flood Control District County
A sign indicating No Swimming or Wading, one of the reasons is that the water is polluted at Legg Lake in Whittier. A Tour of Flood Control District County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works Thursday, December 13, 2012 and other municipal facilities, examples of local solutions for improving water quality...including Legg Lake in Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday that Los Angeles County is not liable for billions of gallons of urban storm water runoff that pollutes the ocean and inland waterways.

By a 9-0 vote, the high court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which had held the Los Angeles County Flood Control District responsible for violating the Clean Water Act.

"I think the ruling confirms the approach we have been taking for many years when it comes to storm water management in L.A. County," said Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the county Department of Public Works.

"It is a collective responsibility for the cities and all who drain from the watershed," he added.

In a narrow ruling written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court rejected the position of environmental groups that contended the flow of urban runoff from one section of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers to another and eventually, to the ocean, represented "a discharge of a pollutant."

Ginsburg wrote that the previous decision from the Ninth Circuit court "cannot be squared with this holding." The Supreme Court ruling said that argument "failed" and "is not embraced ..."

The case began in 2008 when the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Santa Monica Baykeeper (now known as the Los Angeles Waterkeeper) filed suit alleging the county was responsible for the urban runoff that picks up bacteria from dog feces, metals from brake pads and pesticides from suburban lawns as it flows through the two rivers to the ocean.


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Studies say urban runoff sickens 640,000 to 1.4million people who visit L.A. and Orange County beaches each year, according to the NRDC. Mostly, swimmers come down with diarrhea, sore throats, pink eye or fever.

While few argue that storm water pollution is a serious problem, the high court's narrow decision did not address who should clean it up.

Hildebrand said recent storm water discharge permits issued to the county and cities by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board take a cooperative approach, one that involves most of the county's 88 cities and individual county property owners as well.

The county Flood Control District and Department of Public Works sent notices to 2.2million property owners last month, declaring an intent to assess property owners for future storm water cleanup projects. The county's Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure will cost single-family properties about $54 a year and commercial properties between $300 and $11,000. The measure would raise about $275million a year.

The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed fee Jan. 15. A divided board must decide whether to put the measure out to a vote of the property owners.

"This decision doesn't alter our approach in dealing with the funding measure," Hildebrand said Tuesday. "It validates the approach of the storm water permit that has been issued. That everybody has a role."

steve.scauzillo@sgvn.com

626-544-0843

The Associated Press contributed to this report.