Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

PETITIONER: Los Angeles County Flood Control Distric
RESPONDENT: Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: Los Angeles County

DOCKET NO.: 11-460
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 568 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jun 25, 2012
ARGUED: Dec 04, 2012
DECIDED: Jan 08, 2013

ADVOCATES:
Aaron Colangelo - for the respondents
Pratik A. Shah - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Timothy T. Coates - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The level of pollution detected in the Santa Clara River, the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, and Malibu Creek—collectively known as the Watershed Rivers—far exceeds what is allowed by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit held by Los Angeles County. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental organizations brought legal action against the county and the district, alleging that the county violated the Clean Water Act. The allegations stem from the fact that the county and district allowed untreated storm water that had collected myriad pollutants to run unchecked through storm sewers and into the rivers. The county and district did not contest the fact that the amount of pollutants was high but rather contested the allegations that they were solely responsible.

The federal district court found for county and the district and held that there was no evidence that they were directly responsible. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court's decision with respect to the Santa Clara River and the Malibu Creek but reversed the decision with respect to the San Gabriel River and the Los Angeles River.

Question

Can the transfer of water from one portion of a river to another portion via a manmade improvement for the purpose of controlling storm water runoff still be considered a "discharge" under the Clean Water Act?

Media for Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 2012 in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 08, 2013 in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has the opinion of the Court this morning in Case No. 11-460, Los Angeles County Flood Control District vs. Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case involves the meaning of “discharge of a pollutant” as that term is used in the Clean Water Act.

Petitioner Los Angeles County Flood Control District operates a municipal separate storm sewer system or MS4.

An MS4 is a drainage system that collects, transports, and discharges stormwater.

Stormwater is often heavily polluted.

The Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations therefore require MS operators like the Los Angeles District to obtain a permit before discharging stormwater into navigable waterways.

Respondents, two environmental advocacy groups, filed a citizen suit against the District under the Clean Water Act.

Their complaint alleged that water quality measurements from monitoring stations in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers showed that the District was not operating in accord with its permit.

The US District Court granted summary judgment to the District on those claims, but the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The monitoring stations for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, the Court of Appeals said, are located in concrete channels controlled by the District and constructed for flood-control purposes.

Stemming from this impression, the Court of Appeals held that the District had discharged pollutants in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The discharged occurred, the Ninth Circuit concluded, when polluted water detected at the monitoring stations flowed out of the concrete channels and into downstream portions of the waterways lacking concrete linings.

We had a certiorari to decide the following question.

Does the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway qualify under the Clean Water Act as a discharge of pollutants?

The parties in the United States, as amicus curiae, agree and the opinion released today holds that the answer to this question is no and that means the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed.

Our holding follows ineluctably from our decision in South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe.

We held then Miccosukee that the transfer of water between a canal and in a nearby reservoir would count as a discharge of pollutants under the Clean Water Act only if the canal and the reservoir were meaningfully distinct water bodies.

Homing in on the terms of the District's permit, respondents alternatively argue that the exceedances detected at the monitoring stations sufficed to establish the District's liability for its upstream discharges.

This argument was made and failed in the Ninth Circuit because it is not embraced within the narrow question on which we read its certiorari.

We do not address it.

Our decision reversing the Ninth Circuit's judgment and remanding is joined by eight members of the Court, Justice Alito concurs in the judgment only.

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