Water quality impacts of stormwater discharges to Santa Monica Bay

Steven Bay*, Burton H. Jones, Kenneth Schiff, Libe Washburn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Urban stormwater runoff is a major source of contaminants to southern California's coastal waters, yet little is known about the fate and effects of these discharges. A 3-year multidisciplinary project was conducted to investigate the dispersion of stormwater plumes in Santa Monica Bay and the resultant impacts on the water column and benthos. This paper describes the toxicity component of the study. Sea urchin fertilization toxicity tests were conducted on stormwater from the two largest discharges into the bay: Ballona Creek, which drains a highly urbanized watershed, and Malibu Creek, which receives runoff from a largely undeveloped watershed. Every sample of Ballona Creek stormwater tested was toxic (usually >5 toxic units), while Malibu Creek stormwater had a lower frequency and magnitude of toxicity (usually <4 toxic units). Surface water samples collected within the Ballona Creek stormwater discharge plume were always toxic whenever the concentration of stormwater in the plume exceeded 10%. The toxic portion of the Ballona Creek stormwater plume extended more than 4 km offshore on one occasion. Toxicity identification studies indicated that zinc was the primary cause of toxicity in both Ballona Creek stormwater and the discharge plume. No acute sediment toxicity (10-day amphipod survival) was present in the study area, although interstitial water toxicity was present at some stations located near the mouth of Ballona Creek. Differences in watershed characteristics likely were responsible for the greater toxicity of the Ballona Creek stormwater discharge plume. The Ballona Creek watershed contained a greater degree of urbanization (83% versus 12% for Malibu Creek) and the presence of a network of concrete flood control channels resulted in a stormwater plume containing elevated concentrations of toxics that received less initial dilution (compared to Malibu Creek) in the nearshore environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-223
Number of pages19
JournalMarine environmental research
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Receiving water
  • Santa Monica Bay
  • Sea urchin
  • Stormwater
  • Toxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science
  • Pollution


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