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State and Regional Water Boards
They Must Do More to Ensure That Local Jurisdictions’ Costs to Reduce Storm Water Pollution Are Necessary and Appropriate

Report Number: 2017-118



Our audit of the regulation of storm water pollution by the State Water Board and three regional boards highlighted the following:

Results in Brief

Storm water runoff is a significant source of water pollution, particularly in urban areas. Pollution from storm water runoff occurs when water from rain and melting snow flows over impervious surfaces such as paved streets and building rooftops and enters water bodies, including streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, through storm drains. As it flows, the water collects a variety of pollutants, which the storm drain system subsequently deposits into local water bodies. To curb the harmful effects of pollution from storm water runoff, federal law requires states to set restrictions on the pollutants that can be discharged into water bodies and requires local jurisdictions, including cities, counties, and other public entities, to obtain storm sewer permits. The permit requires local jurisdictions to monitor their storm water discharge and take action to reduce the pollutants to safe levels. The permits also implement pollutant control plans, which the regional boards develop to improve water bodies harmed by pollution. In California, storm water pollution is regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) and nine regional water quality control boards (regional boards). We reviewed the regulatory activities of the State Water Board and three regional boards: the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Central Valley), the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (Los Angeles), and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (San Francisco Bay).

The effort required to comply with pollutant control plans established by regional boards can be significant, as projects can be expensive and take considerable time to complete. For example, Los Angeles estimated that one pollutant control plan it developed would cost 41 local jurisdictions a total of about $1.4 billion in construction costs to build the needed devices to reduce the discharge of metal pollutants into the Los Angeles River, and an additional $153 million in annual maintenance costs after completing construction of the devices. Consequently, it is important that regional boards identify and understand local jurisdictions’ existing costs before imposing additional requirements.

We would expect that in developing pollutant control plans, regional boards would adequately consider the costs local jurisdictions would incur to comply with the pollutant control plans and would determine the overall cost of storm water management to those jurisdictions so as to make sure that such costs are not prohibitive. However, we question the support the regional boards used for eight of the 20 pollutant control plans we reviewed. For some of the pollutant control plans we reviewed, the regional boards based their cost estimates on information pertaining to other parts of the State or did not document the sources for the cost estimates they used when developing the plans’ pollutant limits—the numeric goals the regional boards establish to achieve desired water quality. Further, for 12 of the 20 pollutant control plans, the regional boards did not consider all of the costs that local jurisdictions had previously incurred as a result of other storm water management requirements.

The State Water Board and the regional boards lack consistent information on the costs that local jurisdictions incur in complying with storm water requirements. Federal regulation requires local jurisdictions to annually report their actual and projected costs for meeting storm water requirements to the regional boards. However, the State Water Board has not provided guidance to local jurisdictions on how to track or report their storm water management expenditures, and as a result, the costs that local jurisdictions reported have been inconsistent. San Francisco Bay does not collect cost information from local jurisdictions in its region, and staff at that regional board said that they do not do so because the inconsistent reporting from local jurisdictions makes the information difficult to use. Central Valley and Los Angeles do collect expenditure information annually, but they also reported that the inconsistencies among the local jurisdictions’ cost reporting make the information difficult to use.

The State Water Board has long been aware of this inconsistency, but it has yet to correct the problem. A 2005 study it commissioned noted the inconsistencies in cost information and recommended that the State create cost‑reporting guidance for local jurisdictions to allow accurate cost analyses and comparisons. The chief deputy director at the State Water Board reported that it has not done so because it lacks expertise in municipal finance and accounting, yet it has not sought such expertise. Until such guidance is prepared and disseminated, the information that regional boards receive from local jurisdictions will continue to be inconsistent, and the regional boards will not be able to thoroughly evaluate the effects of the requirements they impose on local jurisdictions or local jurisdictions’ ability to pay for those efforts.

In addition to lacking an understanding of the costs of the pollutant control plans they establish, the regional boards have established some pollutant control plans without obtaining key information on the water bodies they regulate, particularly information on how the conditions of the specific water body affect pollutants. Obtaining this information is important, as it can have a substantial effect on the pollutant control plans the regional board ultimately develops. For example, a study conducted by a group of cities, including the city of Los Angeles, showed that a pollutant level in the Los Angeles River could be less strict than the maximum pollutant level established by the federal government and still be safe. As a result, the Los Angeles board changed the maximum level for this pollutant from the federal level to the level identified in the study. Los Angeles estimated that as a result of the change, the expected costs to comply with the pollutant control plan would be $340 million to $1.3 billion less. However, in five of the 20 pollutant control plans we reviewed, the regional boards did not obtain all relevant information about the related water bodies before establishing pollutant limits. We found that tailoring the pollutant limits in a pollutant control plan for the water body often resulted in levels that were more appropriate and more cost‑effective.

The State Water Board’s adoption of a statewide policy prohibiting local jurisdictions from discharging trash into water bodies has caused some local jurisdictions to expend resources to address trash rather than pollutants of greater concern. That policy has forced local jurisdictions to prioritize efforts to reduce trash before addressing other pollutants. The State Water Board believes that a statewide trash policy is necessary because trash is a serious issue in California and will become more problematic if not addressed promptly by all local jurisdictions. However, many local jurisdictions in California do not have harmful levels of trash in their waters, including all local jurisdictions in the Central Valley region. Yet the trash policy will require these local jurisdictions to dedicate resources to reduce trash in water bodies even though their efforts would be better directed toward pollutants that currently pose greater threats.

Finally, because of the significant costs to address storm water pollution, the demand for grants from the State for storm water projects has far exceeded the funding available. In 2016 the State Water Board received grant applications requesting $322 million, and it awarded $105 million for 27 projects. In addition, cities may not be able to meet the funding requirements of grants, such as providing matching funds and committing resources for continued operation and maintenance. The most recent state grant program pursuant to a recent bond measure requires a minimum 50‑percent match from the local jurisdiction, with certain exceptions.

Key Recommendations


To promote the establishment of appropriate pollutant limits, the Legislature should amend state law to direct the State Water Board to assess whether a study of a specific water body is justified and, if so, require the appropriate regional board to ensure that the study is conducted by the regional board or the applicable local jurisdictions. For example, a study could be justified if the water body’s condition might warrant modifying a maximum pollutant level, if the study could be performed cost‑effectively, and if the study’s benefits are likely to reduce local jurisdictions’ costs or improve protection of the water body’s uses. The State Water Board should seek additional funding for local jurisdictions to conduct studies if it believes additional resources are needed.

State Water Board and Regional Boards

Agency Comments

The State Water Board and regional boards generally agreed with our recommendations and plan to implement them. However, the State Water Board expressed concerns with the suggested timelines for certain recommendations and did not agree that it should revise its statewide trash policy. The State Water Board and regional boards also stated that some of our conclusions are either over‑generalized or inaccurate. We disagree and present our comments on their response.

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