Don’t Let Clean Water Go Down the Drain

A single storm can sweep billions of gallons of polluted runoff directly into Santa Monica Bay.  Yes, that’s billions with a “B.”  So it’s not much of a stretch to understand why the majority of waterbodies in Los Angeles County, including the Santa Monica Bay, are officially impaired by bacteria, trash and metals. In fact, 7 of the 10 most polluted beaches in California are located right here in our backyard.

Equally troubling, valuable storm water is literally going down the drain.  We live in in an area of permanent drought, yet we keep building and expanding, importing billions of gallons of costly and increasingly scarce water from our neighbors to fuel our growing demand. Imagine if we captured and reused the water from storms instead of funneling water into stormdrains and rivers and to be dumped full of pollution into the sea?

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Storm water, if recharged, can provide a safe and less expensive source of water.  Rainwater becomes an asset, rather than a liability.

Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considered moving forward with the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches” Measure, a funding measure that would help local cities and the County implement critical clean water projects to protect our region’s surface waters and also provide other added benefits such as increasing the local water supply and open space. Property owners would be assessed an annual fee based on the amount of runoff their parcels generate. The typical homeowner would pay roughly $54 a year.

The measure has been contemplated for the past seven years but gained momentum over the last year, as new storm water regulations were recently adopted.

A diverse mix of supporters – including representatives from local cities, businesses, environmental organizations and community groups from across L.A. County came out to support the Measure. The supporters outnumbered the protestors, despite the hearing being a “protest hearing” specifically required by law to consider opposition to the measure.

We are grateful that so many supporters showed up to make their voices heard, but it was especially gratifying to see middle school students from the Santa Monica Alternative Schoolhouse, who took the Santa Monica Blue Bus to the hearing, testifying as well as absorbing a valuable lesson in how our local government functions.

Some critics complained about how the outreach materials were assembled and distributed to the public. On principle, others opposed the idea of any more levies on property owners to fund public works infrastructure and programs, no matter the need.

While there was some positive discussion by the Supervisors about needing to clean up our region’s waterways, they did not all see the urgency in moving the measure forward expeditiously, despite three board members of the Regional Quality Control Board testifying in support of the measure and referencing looming compliance deadlines.

At times it felt like the supervisors wanted a silver-bullet solution to their water quality issues to avoid enforcement. Simply implementing a project or policy doesn’t mean that sufficient water quality improvement will result.   Several supervisors were disturbingly misinformed about their legal responsibilities to implement Clean Water Act requirements.

Instead, the approved motion contemplates a general election with a “goal” of 2014.  This direction deviates from the previous trajectory of presenting a mail ballot this spring to property owners, which seems fair given that they are the individuals most directly affected by the fee. Keep in mind, that 2/3 of voters are needed to pass a fee-related measure in a general election – a very high bar to meet — rather than a simple majority for a property owners ballot.  Some see the change as a significant setback for the measure, especially because a property owner ballot is a completely viable option.  However, stormwater advocates need to remain positive and vigilant.  

So what is next?

We will continue to work with the County to ensure that the content of the measure is as strong as possible. It’s almost there but just needs a little more work. The measure should include a refined rebate and incentive program for property owners who are already implementing stormwater capture practices. Parties are also debating the exact nature of a so-called sunset clause, which determines a phase-out period for the fees. With a report due back to the supervisors in 90 days, remaining issues should be hammered out by then.

Hopefully, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and staff responsible for implementing water quality requirements in cities and L.A. County can educate their elected officials about water quality requirements and the many consequences of not having the necessary funding to implement infrastructure enhancements.  There is an alarming disconnect here.

Concurrently, we need to strategize on additional paths forward to achieve a sustainable funding source for water quality improvement projects. The consequences of not doing anything are very dire. Not only will the benefits such as improved water quality, public health protection, job creation and increased local water supply not be realized, but municipalities will not be afforded this important source of funding for achieving compliance with mandatory Clean Water Act requirements.

Do you support a sustainable approach to clean water? Contact your Los Angeles County supervisor to support the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches” measure!