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U.S. Supreme Court Finds Sewer System's Discharges Did Not Violate CWA

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 8 held that a California storm sewer system operator's discharges into navigable waterways did not violate the Clean Water Act (CWA), holding that the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway to an unimproved portion of that same waterway does not qualify as "a discharge of a pollutant" (Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., et al., No. 11-460, U.S. Sup.; 2013 U.S. LEXIS 597).

(Opinion available. Document #08-130111-032Z.)


The high court reversed a decision from the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that reinstated claims brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. (NRDC) and Santa Monica Baykeeper against the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.

Illegal Discharges

The groups sued the district in the U.S District Court for the Central District of California, contending that discharges from its municipal separate storm sewer system contained storm water containing pollutants. The district holds a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is required by the CWA. The groups contended that water quality measurements from monitoring stations within the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers demonstrated that the district was violating the limits set for its NPDES permit.

Judge A. Howard Matz awarded summary judgment to the district, and the groups appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the discharges did violate the CWA because the water flowed from lined portions of the rivers to unlined portions. The district appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that the discharges did not violate the CWA.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for the court, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan concurred. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. concurred in the judgment.


The district is represented by Timothy T. Coates of Greines Martin Stein & Richland in Los Angeles.

Aaron Colangelo of the NRDC in Washington and Lawrence S. Bazel of Briscoe Ivester & Bazel in San Francisco are counsel for the NRDC.

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