Taylor Nicole Pitz
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability student Taylor Nicole Pitz

The Past, Present, and Future of Los Angeles’ Ocean Water Quality

by Taylor Nicole Pitz

Los Angeles is home to nine million people, half a million businesses, nearly seven thousand miles of street, two and million cars. While not always evident, the entire county of Los Angeles severely impacts its coastline, especially the Santa Monica Bay. Since the city’s earliest development, it has altered the ecology of the area’s rivers, streams, and beaches. Past solutions have helped move LA towards a more water conscious attitude, as well as, help turn environmental damage around. However, these solutions do not address all aspects impacting the coast, nor do they address the continual growth and development of the city. Furthermore, they do not accommodate for future challenges Los Angeles might face with climate change and global warming. Fortunately, scientists and engineers have visions for the future of LA management that seek to address these wider scope of problems.

To fix LA’s water quality issues, we need all the people and all the ideas taking on the problem from all sides.

I wanted to go straight to the source to get a broad perspective on past, current, and future problems and solutions for Los Angeles water management. Upon minutes of walking into his cozy, fifth floor office on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, I got all that and more when I met with Dr. Richard Ambrose. A Southern California native, Ambrose grew up diving off the coast of San Diego. While he began his career in marine ecology on a whim, he could have just as easily focused in on desert or mountain environments, Ambrose has dedicated nearly three decades to studying California’s coastal ecosystems. His knowledge and passion has taken him far, and he currently serves as Director of the Environmental Science and Engineering Program at UCLA.  Ambrose also serves on the Scientific Advisory Panel of the California Coastal Commission, the Ballona Restoration Project’s Science Advisory Committee (co-chair), the Technical Advisory Committee for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission (SMBRC), the Southern California Wetland Recovery Project’s Science Advisory Panel, the SMBRC Marine Protected Area Technical Advisory Committee, and finally the Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As his credentials indicate, Ambrose knows his stuff. He has an incredible amount of experience in a vast array of water management sectors.

“I mean ten, fifteen years ago, you could pull up a fish in the Santa Monica Bay, and it had infected lesions and cancer growths all over it” says UCLA professor, Richard Ambrose. “This isn’t the case any more. Los Angeles still faces many water management issues, but there has been progress.”

The first topic Dr. Ambrose addressed was the specific habitats facing degradation from LA’s growth and development. Much of his research has focused on wetlands, which historically, comprised much of coastal Los Angeles, and Southern California. Wetlands are areas of land saturated with water either permanently or seasonally, and they support aquatic plants and grasses. They usually serve as important habitats or breeding grounds for birds and marine fish. However, one of Ambrose’s major concerns about wetlands was that wetlands filter runoff and streams making their way to the ocean. Over the past century, ninety-one percent of wetlands in Southern California have been destroyed. The removal and development of wetland regions in California, has contributed to poor water quality, especially in urban regions like Los Angeles.

But who even cares about water quality? Many people wonder about the value of having a clean ocean environment. On a large scale, keeping the oceans clean helps keep all of Earth’s natural processes in order. However, on a more local scale, having clean beaches greatly contributes to a region’s economy. Millions of people visit Los Angeles every year, and a majority of these visitors spend at least one day at the beach. Although many visitors want to see Hollywood and Rodeo Drive, one of the greatest appeals to tourists is the big, blue Pacific Ocean. Most visitors spend at least one day at or near the beach. From the minute they arrive, these visitors spend money on everything from parking meters to bike rentals to sandwiches. The beach side city of Santa Monica generates 1.39 billion dollars annually from tourism, with a large portion coming from beach related activities. There is no question: beaches have an incredible economic value.

Sitting across the table from Dr. Ambrose, I couldn’t help but wonder how it all connects. Surely, the destruction of wetlands was not the only problem plaguing LA’s waters. Certainly, no wetland could filter the amount of pollution created by a city the size of Los Angeles. However, it all became clear as Dr. Ambrose wove his tale. He explained that city’s pollution problems were built right into the city itself. During the city’s early development, engineers channeled the Los Angeles River- making it contained to a much smaller cement paved course. Historically during times of heavy rain, the river naturally overflowed into flood plains where the water could settle. Some might run into the ocean, but a majority could naturally filter back through the groundwater cycle. However, the channeling of the great river disrupted this cycle. Instead, it sought to remove as much water off the streets, sidewalks, and roofs as possible and take it away quickly. This new system pushes all the river water and runoff out to the ocean, without any treatment or filtering. As LA developed and became home to more industry and cars, the water running off the streets out to the ocean became dirtier and dirtier.  Furthermore, along with the city, many factories and production plants were built near the river. For a long time, industrial runoff from these factories and plants faced no regulation. Large production plants could release any waste products they wished, and all of these flowed out into the ocean. While the ocean’s sheer size dilutes pollutants, the quantities being released by these factories became greater and greater. The toxic pollution took its toll on the coastal environment.

Although the ocean water here in Los Angeles seems far dirtier and less inviting than the blue waters I’m used to at home in Laguna, I just couldn’t believe that the waters off Santa Monica remained that toxic today. I surf in LA weekly, and for the most part, I can remain healthy unless I surf after a rain. Dr. Ambrose continued his story. He explained that at one point, the waters off Santa Monica were not safe. He explained that in 1972, The Clean Water Act of 1972 allowed for the regulation of all industrial discharged pollutants into US waters. This law proved instrumental in cleaning up LA streams and beaches. For the first time, the government could restrict what large industrial plants could release into local watersheds. This made a huge impact on the point-source pollution problems which the US Environmental Protection Agency defines as “any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship or factory smokestack.” With the enactment of the Clean Water Act, California could take control of industrial wastewater. Most water quality management efforts up until now have worked to address point source and sewage treatment. While these two forms of pollution cause incredible amounts of damage, they are not the only pollution urban cities cause.

The short coming of the Clean Water Act lies in the fact it does not address non-point source pollution: pollution that does not come from one defined source. This type of pollution is the worst after a big rain. Water runs off roofs, sidewalks, and streets collects oils, toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, sediment, salt, bacteria, nutrients, and pet wastes sitting on the street. After picking up this array of pollutants, the water enters the storm drain system, and it rushes out to the ocean- right to my favorite surf spot: explaining why I get sick if I go in the water after a rain. The biggest problem with non-point source pollution, is that it much harder to control than point source. It comes from many locations as a result of almost every facet of our every day lives. From a little leak of car oil to a thrown cigarette butt, non-point source pollutants accumulate in small amounts from different people in different places, but it all collectively wreaks havoc on the coastal environment.

In recent years, Los Angeles has taken small steps to address non point source pollution. Santa Monica built the revolutionary S.M.U.R.F. or the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility. The S.M.U.R.F treats runoff water so that it can be recycled and reused as landscape irrigation water, as well as, in dual-plumbed systems for toilet water. S.M.U.R.F. is groundbreaking and revolutionary, however, it does not solve the non- point source pollution problem.

Dr. Ambrose pointed out that treatment plants like S.M.U.R.F. can handle runoff during light rains and summertime runoff. However, during heavy winter storms, no plant can handle the amount of water coming through the watershed. To address the problem fully, he explained, many very expensive plants would have to be built throughout LA, to accommodate the massive quantity of water flowing out during these times. However, it is not cost effective for the city to build these plants, nor is there enough room to build them, especially in the already developed coastal areas. Furthermore, rainfall in Southern California may change drastically in the next few decades. The effects of climate change and global warming cannot fully be predicted, however, in Southern California could lead to prolonged droughts and more dramatic flooding. If this were to happen, plants could not adapt to larger quantities of water during flash floods.

For all these reasons, scientists, like Dr. Ambrose advocate other ways of dealing with LA’s water problem. Simple band-aid fix it tactics will not succeed in handling ocean pollution in the long term. Because Los Angeles is a huge area with a huge watershed, in looking towards the future, Ambrose advocates diffusing the efforts: taking on little pieces at a time. The first step he discussed involves individual home treatment. Tools like rain barrels that collect water from gutters and roofs. This water can then be used in landscape irrigation. This saves water use, as well as, helps return rain water into the groundwater system. Ultimately, the more rainfall absorbed into the earth one way or another, the less drains out unfiltered to the ocean. While designing these systems in homes requires energy and money, Ambrose points out, that it is much cheaper than an alternative treatment plant. Furthermore, if cities provided the right incentive or funding, a tactic like this could take hold much more quickly than the time it would take to build a large treatment plant.

Storm drain filters are another solution Ambrose says could help LA in the future. While still expensive, individual storm drain filters could significantly reduce pollutants flowing out to sea, while not incurring the expenses of a large treatment plant. While logistically it would take a lot of work and cooperation on a city government level, Ambrose thinks that this solution hold potential and cities are already looking at this possibility.

The previous solutions do not address LA’s largest body of water: the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. Ambrose asserts that restoring the river to its original state would be the ideal way to improve water quality. This would allow for diversion and settling of flood water before it makes its way out to the Pacific. However, the city of Los Angeles now extends up to the very edge of the river, and this solution is not possible. He argues that flood plains could possibly be restored to their natural state far upstream to reduce the amount of water flowing down stream. As far as controlling the lower half of the watershed, Ambrose proposes any way to divert water. Options include diverting water into settling pools, simple treatment facilities, or reservoirs where water can be stored and used later for irrigation. Any of these solutions would require a huge effort by city government and engineers.

Education is yet another aspect of solving the pollution problem. People must prioritize water quality in order for it to remain a relevant issue. A large city like Los Angeles has a mile long list of problems, and its citizens must decide which problems to address. To manage LA’s water responsibly, the city must dedicate a lot of time, energy, and resources. Furthermore, people living within a watershed must understand how their everyday actions effect the water cycle. Over the past decade, water quality education has been greatly improved, however, it will need to continue to be implemented in school systems and in the general public. It will also need to change and grow with current methods of water treatment to stay relevant.

Legislation is yet another possible solution to the LA’s water quality issue. The Clean Water Act was the single most effective action to date in cleaning up LA’s beaches. However, Washington passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 when the political climate was very different. Today, it is increasingly difficult to even put together any environmental act, and it would be near impossibly to pass another act cracking down on water quality. Furthermore, to address the problem of non-point source pollution, the bill would have to regulate everything from cars, to homes, to pets, to gutters, to storm drains. Realistically, something this restrictive could never be regulated at a federal level. I asked Dr. Ambrose whether or not he thought a law aimed towards targeting non-point source pollution could ever be passed at a city level. He explained that it would be possible for a city to pass a law targeting various sources of non-point pollution. However, he elaborated that the greatest problem with this idea is that then there would be inconsistent standards between various cities all within the same watershed. While coastal cities might enforce stricter pollution laws because they have more to gain or to lose with water quality. When the water stays clean, coastal cities benefit economically from tourism. Contrastingly, inland cities stand little to gain from clean water. People living in these cities might visit the beach a couple days a year, but it is not a part of their daily life, and therefore, it is not a part of their greatest concerns.

This last point brings up one of the greatest problems in ocean pollution: the great divide between coast cities and inland cities. A watershed might stretch for miles and miles inland, however, the only people even remotely aware of their impacts on the ocean habitat are those who live right at the water’s edge. However, in situations like Los Angeles’, a majority of the pollutants being washed out come from far inland, where citizens have little understanding of their impact. This problem influences nearly all the solutions necessary for future water management.”

When people do not feel connected to the problem, they have no incentive to work toward solutions. If people inland have no stake in water quality, why should they invest in rain barrels or support their city paying for storm drain filters or approve a plan to alter the flow of the Los Angeles River? Overcoming this attitude remains one of the greatest challenges in the fight for clean water. However, with education, it is possible to build a sense of a larger community extending beyond just one city. This can create support and energy toward the cause, and education can help areas decide to take smaller steps to be a part of new clean water solutions.

To wrap up our conversation, I asked Dr. Ambrose what he thought were the most important solutions to take on first. He wisely responded, “It’s a big task. We just have to chip away at it. The best way is you have to chip away at all parts of it.” With a problem as broad as the city limits itself, Los Angeles will have to approach the water quality issue from all sides. It seems like a giant mountain to tackle. However, Dr. Ambrose reassured that it can be done: Los Angeles has the resources and the ideas to do it. However, he warns that the solutions discussed earlier are not quick fixes, and we can’t get discouraged. He added “Over my career, I’ve seen improvement. It just takes time. You have to be patient. Especially the distributed solutions we discussed, those might take ten, twenty years.” He also explained that education, while effective, can take a long time to make a difference. But most importantly, Dr. Ambrose advocates getting as many people involved and aware of the water quality issue as possible. When there’s “more people who are thinking about it, there’s more ideas.” To fix LA’s water quality issues, we need all the people and all the ideas taking on the problem from all sides.