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A Better Partnership


Feb 2013
February 07, 2013

Court Rules in Stormwater Runoff Case

In a short opinion issued on Jan. 8, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway is not a discharge under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The case, Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, involved a stormwater system that conveys urban stormwater runoff into the Los Angeles River. The Flood Control District has a permit under the CWA that prohibits it from causing or contributing to a decline in water quality standards in the river.

The Natural Resources Defense Council claimed that the district was violating its permit.  The trial court held that the evidence didn’t show that the district did anything to negatively impact water quality standards in the river. It found that there was insufficient monitoring evidence to link the discharges to unacceptable water quality standards found in certain parts of the river. The appeals court reversed the trial court, holding that there was sufficient evidence to link the two.

The appeals court’s holding appeared to be based in part on an interpretation of the CWA that water flowing from improved, channelized portions of the Los Angeles River into “natural” portions of the river constituted a “discharge.” The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a “discharge” under the CWA does not occur when water simply flows from one portion of a body of water to another, as it did in this case.

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