U.S. Supreme Court Holds L.A. Stormwater Flows Did Not Violate Clean Water Act

Published Jan 15, 2013

In a 9-0 ruling on January 8, 2013 (Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., No. 11-460), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that had held the Los Angeles County Flood Control District liable for violation of the District’s Clean Water Act NPDES stormwater permit.  In a case in which all parties, including the United States as amicus curiae, agreed on the answer to the narrow question on which the Supreme Court granted certiorari, the Court held that the District had not violated the Clean Water Act because the flow of water from a concrete-lined portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a “discharge of a pollutant.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper had filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the District, alleging that water quality measurements from monitoring stations in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers demonstrated that the District was violating water quality standards.  The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the environmental groups, holding that a “discharge of pollutants” occurred when stormwater containing water quality standards-exceeding pollutants flowed out of concrete-lined flood control channels and into downstream unlined portions of the rivers.  But in front of the Supreme Court all parties agreed that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was erroneous, because the Supreme Court had previously ruled in South Fla. Water Management Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe, 541 U.S. 95, 124 S.Ct. 1537 (2004), that the transfer of polluted water between “two parts of the same water body” is not a discharge of pollutants.  An article by Tupper Mack Wells attorney Lynne Cohee describes the Supreme Court’s latest opinion and its context in more detail.  For more information, contact Lynne Cohee at cohee@tmw-law.com.

  • To view Lynne Cohee’s article, click here.
  • To view the Supreme Court decision, click here.