Conservationists hailed a move by regional water officials to enforce clean-water standards by threatening 20 cities and Los Angeles County with tens of thousands of dollars in daily fines for repeatedly polluting Santa Monica Bay with contaminated runoff.
The action put teeth into a decades-long effort to clean up one of America's signature shorelines, where millions of residents and tourists visit annually and "Baywatch" babes used to patrol.
The violation notices were issued Tuesday by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which voted in 2006 to start fining cities $10,000 a day if Santa Monica Bay did not meet clean-water standards.
"The scale of this is unprecedented," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay. "It's the first time anyone's ever done this in the country — to actually pursue enforcement for the protection of beach water quality."
Water board chair Francine Diamond said in a statement that it was "critical" to the health of residents and visitors, the multibillion-dollar coastal economy, and the environment that water quality laws be followed.
The city of Santa Monica was one of the top violators, with 795 instances in which bacteria levels were too high in tests in 2006 and 2007. The notice required the city to provide information including the cause of the violations, the results of investigations into the sources of the bacteria and the city's plan to clean up the problem.
Santa Monica officials said they were surprised to receive the notice since they believe the seaside city is a leader when it comes to employing innovative water quality solutions such as building a facility that recycles and reuses urban runoff.
Even Beverly Hills on list
Half the targeted cities, such as Beverly Hills, don't actually touch the coast or are well inland.
Other top polluters included Los Angeles County and the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu and Culver City, the board said.
The letter issued a stern warning to any city that decides to ignore the requirements. In addition to the $10,000 a day fine, the letter also warns of fines of up to $10,000 if any requirement in the order is violated. The board could also ask the state attorney general to seek civil liabilities in court of up to $25,000 each day a violation occurs.
Mark Pestrella, assistant deputy director for the county Department of Public Works, and officials with other targeted cities said they are not interpreting the notices as a precursor to immediate fines. The letters will encourage officials to "start talking about what more can be done," he said.
"I take the notices as a question," he said.
But David Beckman, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the time for talking is over. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and set a national goal for clean water by the early 1980s, he said.
"We are decades overdue," he said. "If you take your family to the beach it really doesn't matter to you what the bureaucrats have done to clean the water — the only thing that matters is that the water is actually clean."
Experts say heavy rains cause sewage to overflow into storm drains, which carry the bacteria to the ocean. Runoff also carries other pollutants from gutters, streets, yards and parking lots.
Swimming in such water can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory and other illnesses.