Los Angeles County beach water pollution: Reducing fecal coli-form and urban waste levels in our county’s beach waters.

Problem definition

The current and forecasted levels of water pollutants (particularly fecal coliform and urban waste products) within Los Angeles County’s beaches are unacceptable.

Los Angeles County collectively possesses more pollutant particles within its beach waters relative to the safety level standard set by the Air and Water Quality Management Agency, a federal agency.  According to recent, previous studies conducted by the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles County beach water pollutant levels currently measure at over 5 million particles per gallon of sea water.  The standard set by the Air and Water Quality Management Agency is 1 million particles per gallon of sea water.

As time goes on, Los Angeles County’s beaches are turning into toxic coastlines.  If pollution levels continue to rise in our county’s beaches, risks of human diseases and environmental hazards will skyrocket.  Furthermore, given the popularity of beaches amongst California residents and tourists, increasing beach water pollution levels will threaten the county’s tourism industry, the county’s beach culture, and the county’s economy.  Doing something would be better than doing nothing.

Facts and evidence

The same UCLA study documented that the major cause of the county’s beach water pollution is storm-water runoff, in which large amounts of asphalt, vehicle oils, human litter, and eroded metals are collected with runoff water and end up in our beaches.  As a result of this pollution source, nine of Los Angeles County’s beaches are labeled as beaches that do not meet the state’s bacteriological standards.[i]  In addition, fifteen other beaches are at threshold numbers of the state’s bacteriological standards.

Policy options

Proposition 1: Fund and legislate a county-wide Rain Garden development program and mission (to be named as L.A County Rain Gardens) in partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, and TreePeople.

     Simply put, rain gardens are shallow depressions in the soil that capture and absorb storm-water (native plants and swales may also be put in the garden to improve absorption).  It is an expedited, frugal, and natural process, in which storm-water falls from the sky, goes to the soil, and replenishes the groundwater supplies.  Rather than have the storm-water runoff impermeable surfaces (asphalt, sidewalks, etc.) and collect wastes into the storm-water drainage system, rain gardens collect a significant percentage of rain-water and naturally drain the water into the ground.[ii]

Two years ago, TreePeople, a Los Angeles based, nonprofit environmental organization, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, initiated the “Valley Rain Gardens” program, in which professional coordinators and engineers working for TreePeople offered to build free rain garden installations for San Fernando Valley residents.  Due to low demand and lack of government support, the program today is inactive.[iii]  Proposition 1 aims to build on the foundations and learning experiences from this program.

The program will be designed to provide free rain garden installation services to all Los Angeles County communities, both inland and by the coast.  Since the big cause behind beach water pollution is storm-water runoff, beach water pollution levels can be reduced if the entire county is involved in developing rain gardens.  Overall, L.A County Rain Gardens can benefit the environment by:

  • Attacking the root source of beach water pollution by lowering storm-water runoff amounts.
  • Maintaining a clean, efficient water supply through the resulting replenishment of L.A County groundwater supply.
  • Utilizing the many resources offered by TreePeople, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles Department of Public Health, and the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.
  • Becoming an incentive for individuals and corporations to “go green” and adopt green infrastructure (this allows corporations to appeal to larger audiences).
  • Building rain gardens for most future housing and construction projects.
  • Lowering unemployment via demand for engineering and administrative professionals.

TreePeople, based off of its previous “Valley Rain Gardens” program, spent 10 million dollars to build 50 residential rain gardens (costs also included unanticipated soil damages, which were fixed momentarily).[iv]  Seattle Public Works spent 40 million dollars to build a large swale rain gardens alongside major freeways and neighborhoods.  The Seattle Public Works reports that their storm-water runoff levels have fallen by 97% relative to historical measurements[v].

Political feasibility

Proposition 1 will not require beaches to close.  Furthermore, since the proposition addresses a wide range of environmental issues, it may be presented to the public as a general environmental solution and thus not frighten beachgoers.  Even if some municipalities end up doubting the benefits or intended public reaction of the proposition, any city (inland or on the coast) that advocates the proposition will contribute to the lowering of beach water pollutant levels.


Not all households and construction projects will wish to implement rain gardens.  Rain gardens require maintenance, extensive urban planning, valuable space, and, of course, money.  The rain gardens will not fix the problem immediately.  According to the Seattle Public Works, results for lowered water pollution did not show up until 7 years after the implementation of swale water gardens.[vi]  However, depending on how long it takes for the L.A County Rain Gardens program to effectively build – without miscalculations and/or need for repair – the rain gardens can take between 4 to 10 years for desired results to be measurable.

Proposition 2: Maintain Core Clean Water Act requirements by financing needed repairs for the county’s aging sewer system.

The Clean Water Act requires that municipal sewage systems receive primary (remove solids in pipelines) and secondary (chemical treatment to destroy harmful bacteria, protozoa, etc.) repair treatment if wastewater pollutant levels exceed standards.[vii]  Today, however, some municipal utility companies call for routine exemptions from this requirement, especially after unpredictable rain patterns, in order to delay repairs and save money.  Local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency can enforce the requirement of the act and provide incentives to do so through active financial assistance.  After all, methods used to clean Southern California’s sewage system in the 1970’s have caused levels of water pollution today to be lower than predicted[viii].  Therefore, advocating Proposition 2 would result in:

  • A routine, conventional solution for both the environment and aging municipal infrastructures.
  • Higher demand for jobs in public works and urban sewage.
  • Less human wastes on the streets running off into the ocean, since the repaired pipelines will trap material onto pipe walls (hence the purposes of primary repair treatment to remove solids).

Unfortunately, over thousands of meters of pipelines requiring repairs throughout Los Angeles County (the average cost to repair two meters of pipeline is $1500, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)[ix], and 100 million dollars will not repair all appropriate storm-water pipelines.

Political feasibility

Roads and beaches will have to be closed whenever certain segments of pipeline are being repaired.  Since most repair activity would be required at the beach, portions of beaches would be closed for a longer time.  Malibu and Manhattan Beach would not want that to happen.

Overall analysis and final policy recommendation

     Proposition 2 is a fundamental solution that has been practiced for years, and Proposition 1 is a solution that requires extensive, but possible changes in conventional urban planning frameworks.  Both can effectively be accomplished with the current budget (100 million dollars) and many municipalities would be willing to advocating either proposition.  Adopting Proposition 2, however, will still let municipalities use storm drains as the primary method of removing storm water, and even maintained sewage pipelines will not halt storm-water runoff altogether.  Proposition 1 tackles the root cause of the problem by sending all storm-water into the ground instead of sending storm-water into storm-water pipes.  Nonetheless, Proposition 1 marginalizes the importance of an up-to-date pipeline and sewage infrastructure within our municipalities.  Both propositions have their trade-offs.

Regardless, halting an entire problem 7 years from now is better than having to attempt to halt it routinely.  Resources from the variety of partners mentioned in proposition 1 would also lower costs. Furthermore, proposition 1 is more politically and economically feasible than proposition 2.  Even if entire municipalities decide not to implement rain gardens, one municipality with rain gardens can lower water pollutant levels drastically (each Seattle neighborhood swale lowers respective water runoff by 90%).  Therefore, given the flexible options behind rain gardens, I recommend Proposition 1.


As stated within the frame of Proposition 1, TreePeople, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, and the Los Angeles Department of Public Health will implement the program.  TreePeople, with its experiences and foundations with the project, can assume leadership of the program.  TreePeople may also share resources and obtain appropriate permissions with the aforementioned Los Angeles departments.  Difficulties could be faced if the program is not advertised well or if certain building projects refuse to implement rain gardens in their infrastructures.


[i] “LA County Department of Public Health.” LA County Department of Public Health. Version 1. Public Health County Department, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://ph.lacounty.gov/phcommon/public/eh/water_quality/beach_grades.cfm&gt;.

[ii] LA Stormwater Program. “Rain Gardens.” City of Los Angeles Stormwater Program RSS. Version 1. Los Angeles Department of Public Works, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.lastormwater.org/green-la/low-impact-development/residential-solutions/rain-gardens/&gt;.

[iii] Gonzalez, Ramon. “Free Rain Garden Installation for Los Angeles Residents.” TreeHugger. MNN Holdings, 3 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/free-rain-garden-installation-los-angeles-residents.html&gt;.

[iv] “School Greening Initiative and Rain Gardens.” TreePeople. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.treepeople.org/schoolgreening&gt;.

[v] Seattle Public Works. “Department of Finance and Administrative Services.” Department of Finance and Administrative Services. Seattle Department of Public Works, 1 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.seattle.gov/contracting/genesee.htm&gt;.

[vi] Environmental Protection Agency. “Buildings and their Impact on the Environment: A Statistical Summary.” Environmental Protection Agency Green Building. EPA, 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/gbstats.pdf&gt;.

[vii] Dorfman, Mark, and Angela Haren. “Testing the Waters.” Natural Resources Defense Council. Version 23. NRDC, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/2013/ttw2013_Policy_Solutions.pdf&gt;.

[viii] LA Public Works. “History.” City of Los Angeles Stormwater Program RSS. Los Angeles Department of Public Works, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.lastormwater.org/about-us/history/&gt;.

[ix] “How Sprawl Affects Water Supply.” American Rivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.americanrivers.org/initiatives/water-supply/sprawl/&gt;.

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