Water watchdog group moves to DTLA

LA Waterkeeper is moving its offices to Downtown LA after spending 30 years in Santa Monica.

According to Executive Director Bruce Reznik, the organization is moving so it can be closer to the governmental agencies and water-focused groups that are doing the decision making.

“Our work is increasingly centered around Downtown Los Angeles, from water agencies like the Metropolitan Water District to regulatory agencies like the Regional Water Board,” Reznik said.

“Water groups have not been a regular presence at all those agencies. We want to be closer (to Downtown LA) so we can be that presence at city hall and the county board.”

Reznik noted the proximity to Downtown LA also puts LA Waterkeeper closer to its environmental justice partners and helps build better relationships with the communities most impacted by water pollution.

According to the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment, Downtown LA’s level water pollution falls in the 90th percentile for drinking water contaminants, while Santa Monica is only in the 30th percentile. Communities most impacted by that pollution are areas that border the LA River and the surrounding industrial zones, Reznik said.

In the past, LA Waterkeeper has focused on coastal and marine health, but Reznik said that over the years, it made more sense to target inland watersheds at the source of many marine pollutants. While he insists the organization will maintain its commitment to protecting coastal and marine health in Santa Monica Bay, the plan is to focus more heavily on social justice campaigns.

LA Waterkeeper is a watchdog organization focusing on litigation and advocacy to safeguard LA’s inland and coastal waters. Ita mission is to eliminate pollution, achieve ecosystem health in LA’s waterways, and secure low-carbon water supply chains to the region.

A major milestone for the organization came just last month when the Los Angeles County Board of Directors approved the third round of funding for the Safe Clean Water Program.

Allegedly inspired by litigation put forward by LA Waterkeeper, the Safe Clean Water Program focuses on clean water investments that collect and treat stormwater and create nature-based infrastructure for communities in need of greenspace. The program operates on $280 million per year in perpetuity.

Another example of successful litigation by LA Waterkeeper was a lawsuit it won in 2020 against the State Water Resources Control Board. The lawsuit argued that the agency violated the California Constitution, which prohibits wanton water waste, by dumping millions of gallons of wastewater into the ocean rather than recycling it.

Reznik also wanted to emphasize that there is a softer side to the organization, which isn’t just about litigation.

“We also do outreach. We do have programs where we take underserved youth out on our boats and patrol our marine protected areas. I think it is important to do a variety of things, and it also brings you more connected to the community,” he said.

While Reznick is very proud of LA Waterkeeper’s successes at fighting pollution, he said it’s treating the symptoms, not the causes. That is why LA Waterkeeper fights to uphold structural changes like the Safe Clean Water Program and the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Oct. 18 marked the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Overall, the act establishes federal regulations to reduce pollution and explicitly protects the public’s rights to clean and fishable lakes, rivers and waterways.

The most notable section of the Clean Water Act is the requirement for industries and sewage treatment plants to obtain permits from the Environmental Protection Agency regulating the quantity of pollutants they can release.

The impetus for the Clean Water Act came primarily from the Cuyahoga River Fire in 1969, which started when an accumulation of oil waste and debris caught fire. The resulting five-story blaze demonstrated the level of contaminants in the river, which was reportedly the most polluted waterway in the country at that time.

The act is enforced through the EPA and state-implemented regulation agencies. It also creates a framework for organizations like LA Waterkeeper to report violations and instigate litigation. Through LA Waterkeeper’s efforts, 90 industrial facilities in the LA area alone have been brought into Clean Water Act Compliance.

In a press release celebrating the anniversary, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the Clean Water Act has “played a transformational role in protecting people’s health and safeguarding our natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations,” but Reznik said there is still work to do.

When the measure passed in 1972, it aimed to eliminate all pollution in navigable waterways. Since then, many lakes and rivers that were once too polluted for swimming have improved enough to allow public recreation, but many navigable waterways still are polluted.

“It’s nice to celebrate what (the Clean Water Act) has accomplished, but it certainly has a long way to go to deliver on the promise of clean water,” Reznick said.

Reznik explained that to bring forward litigation using the Clean Water Act, LA Waterkeeper must demonstrate to the court that members of the public show interest in the issue. It does this by reaching out to its membership for support during hearings and throughout the litigation process.

LA Waterkeeper also relies on its membership to report instances of toxic runoff, pollution and other Clean Water Act violations through the Community Water Watch Program. The program works to ensure community members living in the areas most impacted by industrial pollutants have the knowledge and resources to identify toxic runoff and trains members to conduct water quality sampling in those areas.

But the little things count as well, Reznik said. Trying to reduce water consumption, switching greenspace on your property to more native vegetation, and remembering that storm drains aren’t treated for pollutants make a difference, he said.

“In a region of 10 million people, if everybody did a little bit better on using less water and a little bit better about not putting things in storm drains, it would have a huge impact. But I think it’s important that the public make their voice heard,” Reznik said.

“Be a voice for clean water, resilient water, and a more sustainable and equitable future for LA.”