Caltrans stormwater lawsuit resolved after three decades

Oct. 18, 2023
Caltrans, LA Waterkeeper, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have agreed to updated settlement terms, aimed at capturing and cleaning stormwater from the Los Angeles region’s roadways.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and LA Waterkeeper have agreed to update settlement terms end a decades-long litigation over runoff pollution.

NRDC and LA Waterkeeper, to conservation groups, sued Caltrans over its alleged mishandling of polluted runoff in 1993. The groups argued that Caltrans failed to properly manage discharge from more than 900 miles of roads and 35 maintenance facilities located across Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“The resolution of this lawsuit has been a long time coming,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of LA Waterkeeper. “We appreciate that Caltrans has continued to work with us to find a workable plan of action to address the significant stormwater pollution that runs off of highways and freeways throughout our region.”

An initial settlement in the case was reached two decades ago, but Caltrans was never able to fully meet all the terms laid out in that agreement. An update to the settlement in 2019 required Caltrans to reduce the volume of untreated stormwater flowing off the region’s roadways by five percent compared to 1994 levels. Caltrans was able achieve that goal in three watersheds, including the San Gabriel River, Los Angeles River, and Dominguez Channel watersheds, but fell short in the Santa Monica Bay watershed.

In this latest resolution of the litigation, which was finalized in U.S. District Court, Caltrans agreed to pay $12 million toward two stormwater capture projects in the Santa Monica Bay watershed to meet its remaining obligations. These investments include $10 million toward the Edward Vincent Jr. Park Stormwater Improvements Project in Inglewood, and $2 million toward the Torrance Airport Stormwater Basin Project.

“Stormwater runoff is an enormous problem throughout the southland,” said Cori Bell, a senior attorney with NRDC. “This agreement will lessen pollution but there is still more work to be done.”

In addition to meeting the terms of the updated settlement, Caltrans was among the first agencies in the nation to install and test runoff treatment solutions, such as catch basins, sand filters, and bioswales, to significantly reduce the volume of untreated stormwater flowing off local roadways.

Caltrans’ response to the lawsuit has included $30 million in research and the installation of 336 treatment systems that collectively have the capacity to filter approximately 18.5 million gallons of stormwater from a single rain event—amounting to roughly 360 million gallons per year of stormwater treatment annually throughout LA and Ventura counties. In addition, Caltrans has contributed more than $125 million toward multi-benefit projects undertaken in collaboration with municipalities in LA County to further reduce stormwater pollution.

“The lawsuit has been a catalyst for change at Caltrans and in other public agencies,” noted Bell. “Because of this litigation three decades ago and our continuous oversight since then, Caltrans has invested in research and pilot projects that have shaped our collective understanding of what stormwater treatment tools work best in different circumstances. Caltrans also has been responsible for the installation of many projects that have improved runoff in the region.”