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L.A. environmental standpoint

With water politics roiling the state and the city, Mark Gold, president of the advocacy group Heal the Bay, visited the editorial board recently to talk about his group's concerns and ambitions. Heal the Bay, which was formed in 1985 to address pollution in the Santa Monica Bay, has widened its focus to include all the safety and health of all Southern California coastal waters and watersheds. Some highlights:

The difficulty of funding water projects

Mark Gold: One of the things you guys have covered very thoroughly is what's going on with the water supply issues in the Delta/Bay and the fact that there's been this impasse between the legislature and the governor's office. And really you can't even get the senate and the assembly to really talk to each other very well right now, which, in all the years we've been doing this kind of work that's pretty unusually. Usually you can get those two sides talking to each other and that's not happening this year. This was among the most distasteful years in the legislature that any of us can remember. Um, and so what's interesting is you see what's going on, where the Central Valley folks are pushing very, very hard, um, on the issue of we need more storage, we need a peripheral canal... So as you know, there's been this whole issue of how much storage there should be in the equation, how much, um, you know, should there be a peripheral canal... You know, for our founder Dorothy Green these are the very issues that really got her into the environmental business to begin with. She has her new book out Managing Water. So it's interesting to see how things have come full circle 35 years later and we haven't really solved the issues.

But one of the things that is not on the table that we think is a huge problem is Senate Constitutional Amendment 12, which nobody has covered this issue in particular, and it's definitely of interest because you guys cover funding stuff an awful lot. SCA12 is a [Tom] Torlakson bill; it used to be a [Tom] Harman bill, so it was a moderate Republican who brought it in the past. And what it does is it's a specific amendment to Prop. 218. And so, sorry it's going very wonky very quickly in this discussion: One of the big problems is we all know with, you know, post-Prop. 13 and 218 and all these other sorts of things, is that the way to get new funding in the state is limited to: bond measures, which everybody seems to love to pass; that doesn't seem to be an issue. And that's pretty much it from the standpoint of funding; you're not seeing local government being able to successfully raise revenue because of 218 constraints.

So in particular, an area that Heal the Bay is very involved in — and really you won't find anyone in a public works department who doesn't want this to occur — is basically this modification to say for storm water abatement and flood control, that you should be able to raise fees without having to have a two-thirds vote of the public or 50% vote of property owners. That's just a huge constraint. You may recall something like that with the schools, when they went from two-thirds to 55%. So one of the things that we've been trying to get Torlakson, [Sheila] Kuehl and some other folks to go is, if anything is going to get going on water this year — which I'd bet against it but it's being discussed pretty seriously — that SCA12 is part of the deal. Because what's happening right now is it's completely partisan. 100%. Which is really bizarre because as I said before the original, um author of the amendment was Harmon from Orange County, a moderate Republican. And he got so much abuse for bringing this a few years ago, um from the Republican Party that he no longer supports. So we actually have this unusual circumstance where in committee hearing, we're all giving him congratulations for his leadership in the past, and he turns around and says "I no longer support it, and the reason I no longer support it is because of what happened in the past in the city of Los Angeles with Proposition O. And you can imagine, for me, with the role that Heal the Bay's played with Proposition O, we were kind of like: You've gotta be kidding me. Heal the Bay helped write Prop. O and obviously helped get it passed. We sat on the advisory committee since day one, and all the money has been allocated pretty much at this point. And what's interesting about Prop. O is it demonstrates perfectly why we need Amendment 218, because bond money gets you capital to initiate projects, but you have no money to maintain them. And this is continually becoming a larger and larger problem in the state on all infrastructure. But our interest obviously would be on flood control and the water quality issues for storm water.

Health of the Delta

Jim Newton: Regarding the Delta, what do you see as the prospects for meaningful uh, improvement in the Delta problem?

Mark Gold: You know, I think — and this is, this is a much better question for other people but I'd be glad to take a shot at it, is that the — what's interesting about the Delta is that until we get to the point where um, folks are willing to take on, uh, water rights issues um, in a meaningful way, um, I don't see us coming up with an easy solution. And the reality is, is that with so many different straws in the Delta, so many different straws in other different um, uh, water supplies in the state of California, it just becomes really, really difficult to come up with a solution that is going to satisfy all the needs. So, it's interesting; I'm not seeing, I'm not seeing the, the animosity that I expected though, from the standpoint of the, the, the Democrats in the legislature versus the Republicans. On the peripheral canal, you're starting to see: That, that used to be strictly there's no way in hell. So I am a little bit concerned that that's a potential solution that might be embraced by the legislature and clearly is favored by the Schwarzenegger administration.

Eryn Brown: Is that a solution that you think under all circumstances would be bad?

Mark Gold: Um I, I don't feel quite the same way about storage as I do about peripheral canal. But the thing, getting back to the water rights issue, until the state of California gets the point of basically saying, Mandatory water conservation across the entire state of California; mandatory water re-use — I mean we're completely underutilizing reclaimed water in the state of California: Until we get to those, those two points on, and saying, Hey we're really doing everything we can to maximize those water sources, it doesn't seem right to go to basically, We plumb the entire Delta, which is already completely um, uh, threatened and on the verge of collapse at the same time. And so that's, you know, if we get to the point where we've implemented those other measures and we still have those same sorts of problems, then I think that makes sense, but until we really see that really earnest movement in that direction as opposed to just rhetoric, um, you know it doesn't make sense.

Eryn Brown: Do you also put short-term Delta, work on the Delta just to keep it from crashing or to keep levees from collapsing, or would you just say hands off completely until we, until we...

Mark Gold: No, protection of life and property changes everything. And so um, from the standpoint of the bond measures and the stuff that was focused on, you know, things that were focused on Delta improvements, that, that makes sense. I mean, we may differ a little bit with how Dorothy, Dorothy looks at those particular issues: She's, you know, a firm believer in: no-one should ever be able to build in a flood plain; and you know, she'd get everybody out of there who's already in the flood plain, which would probably be a million people. And, and, we're not, we're not there, and, and honestly protection of life and property does make sense, but the lack of statewide planning as we all know, and you guys have written about this, you know, how many times, but it's very much like the lack of water planning's the same thing and the lack of land-use planning. It's just not happening in the state. We're seeing no leadership whatsoever; even, you know, you have the Southern California Association of Governments that's right around the corner, here, and they've been talking about stuff for years, but they have no authority whatsoever, and they, they're largely ineffective in what they do, even though they have these sorts of discussions and have had them for decades. But there's just no authority yet.

Mayor Villaraigosa's green city initiative

Mark Gold: He made this incredible promise, on greenest major city, um, in the United States. And we've all heard it; we've all spouted it and talked about it, and clearly an important subject between you on it. Um, the, it's, I think we're two and a half-plus years in, and it's not happening yet, and you look at what's going on in San Francisco, what's going on in New York, what's going on in Chicago, what's going on in Seattle, where you're seeing comprehensive, sustainable city plans, and a real fundamental change in how environmental issues are integrated throughout. And even, you know, and I know it's our own local Petri dish, but even Santa Monica obviously has been doing this for quite some time. That's a very, very progressive, sustainable city plan. We don't have that in L.A. And we have individual things that are great, but um, it doesn't add up from the standpoint of having one umbrella, of where is this major city with all the environmental issues associated with the city, um, how are we going to actually meet that goal, of greenest major city in L.A. (sic). And what does greenest major city in L.A. (sic) even mean? I don't think that's actually been clearly articulated.

I think the mayor's done some extraordinary things in uh, some of his hires. I think the recent hire of David Nahai, um, from an environmental perspective as progressive as you're ever going to get. Um, obviously the role that David Freeman and Jerilyn Mendoza played down — and Geraldine Knatz — play down in the Port of L.A. has been probably the biggest environmental success story of this administration. Um, and so there are, there have been some appointments that are quite good, but from the standpoint of the bottom line of what the promise was, it hasn't happened.

Jim Newton: So why not? What's holding them back?

Mark Gold: I think it hasn't been a top-shelf priority for the mayor directly. He's such a force of nature, if he puts any time into anything himself, it'll get, it'll get done. Um, or at least there will be progress on that issue. For example, I'll bet you he starts putting time into solving that strike. And that strike will, probably won't last another two weeks, when he starts putting his mind to it. He's better at the ability to broker strike solutions than anybody else in the region. But um, you know, he's been focused on education, he's been focused on other issues. He has not personally put in a huge amount of time into this, other than putting good people there.

Jim Newton: And do you think that's because he's distracted? Do you think it's because he doesn't care? I mean, is his heart in the right place and his head doesn't follow, or what's the...

Mark Gold: I think his heart and head are in the right place, but it just has not been the um, the biggest priority for him and the administration. And um, the focus has been more on getting, getting people in there, but he's gotta put the effort and time into making sure that happens. So right now, you probably heard about Garcetti had environmental day, and there were two different days on that a few weeks ago. And you had unanimity in the environmental community, saying we need a sustainable city plan within the next year. And you heard a bunch of different groups including our own, um, and Global Green and Tree People and NRDC and, you know, etc., who basically said: Look, lock us in a room for a month and we'll work with you on the plan, it's just, you guys have got to say you want the plan. There's enough great plans that are out there — Garcetti sent out um, a number of the ones that exist within the country right now; you can go abroad to get plans — so they've been disseminated to the Council, and I think the thought at Council was, this was going to be a mayor-driven activity, and I think the environment day was Eric's way of basically saying: You know what, the Council really needs to take leadership on this as well. We can't just wait for the mayor to do this.

And so you know, I think once there can be some momentum going towards that, then the mayor will start putting some time into that. It's just too bad that it hasn't happened to date.

The plan, please

Robert Greene: Could you give us some highlights as to what such a plan ought to be?

Mark Gold: Yeah, gladly. I've, I'm aware of quite a few plans out there, and I've chaired Santa Monica's environmental task force for 15-plus years. So myself and Bob Gottlieb at Occidental College pushed Craig Perkins and Craig Perkins took it from there, from the city of Santa Monica, to create this whole effort.

The key thing is you need a, you need numeric indicators. You can't just have a bunch of principles that are out there You know, I think what, you know like Jared Blumenfeld's done really well up in San Francisco: They have the precautionary principle up there, for example, in using for decision-making on the environment. So if there is an environmental impact, and you don't know what it is, you just assume there's going to be a significant one, and that helps you make your decisions.

That sort of stuff's all well and good, but you really need to know: All right, we want to reduce water use by x% by this date; we want to increase reclaimed water use by x% by this date; the same thing goes for energy, which this administration has done. You know, they've done a real good job on renewables. Um, 20% by 2010 is incredibly ambitious. And uh, obviously there's no doubt on the climate change front, that they have been paying attention to that. So you have that, you have that. From the standpoint of procurement you have numerical goals. From the standpoint of what are we going to do on our procurement policy, what are we going to do for toxics use reduction? Are we going to be using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides on our parks? In our landscaping? Or are we going to move more toward an integrated pest management approach. So there's different targets you can have there. Transportation is huge from the standpoint of: What are your procurement goals for alt fuels? From the standpoint of the vehicles you purchase: Are you only going to purchase alt-fuel vehicles? If so what's going to be your um, suite of vehicles that you're going to use, and why? There's been a little bit of discussion on that, and it's almost like individual departments are doing stuff, but it's not comprehensive and a huge statement. And L.A. with our enormous purchasing power can really make a huge difference there.

Air quality: What requirements do we want to make there over and above what's in the Clean Air Act and by specific AQMD? Do we want environmental enterprise zones? If so, where? So what are we going to do to, um incentivize green businesses to coming into Los Angeles? I mean those are just some of the things. I could bore you forever on this sort of stuff! But there's...

Robert Greene: It's not planting trees?

Mark Gold: Oh, and a million trees!

Robert Greene: What do you think of that? Is there any substance to that in your view?

Mark Gold: Yeah, there is, there is substance to it. What Andy has been saying, and frankly Paula Daniels, who's the former president of our organization, has brought up, is there's a difference between saying "Let's plant a million trees as soon as possible" and saying "Let's be strategic about how you plant it from the standpoint of watershed management purposes." And that, Andy has been very, very, um, eloquent on that particular issue.

Jim Newton: Andy?

Mark Gold: Andy Lipkis, at TreePeople. And so, you know, passing out seedlings is not really the way to go, but strategically planting trees, and doing it in — maybe you've heard of these things called tree wells — and tree wells can be planted all over the place. They can provide huge benefits from the standpoint of stormwater infiltration. At the same time as also helping canopy issues and heat-island effects and those sorts of things. So it's not, the focus is how do you get to a million as soon as possible, rather than how do we do this in a way that's truly going to help on sustainability and move us forward on these other issues. And that's the sort of thinking that needs to change.

It's the same thing with, one issue that doesn't seem to get brought up in plans is environmental justice issues. Where specific polluting industries are sited as opposed to where people live. And those sorts of goals you know, people coming up with the environmental bill of rights for everyone in Los Angeles, is a good way, a good thing to incorporate within a sustainable city plan that will make everyone clear what we're actually trying to achieve and by what date. And so it's something that's just long overdue to do.

[....]

Jim Newton: If you look to a city like San Francisco, say, is there a document, is there a sustainable city document that would, that would amalgamate all of this...

Mark Gold: Yes.

Jim Newton: ...and what does such a plan look like so it actually exists in a formal sense? And that's what's lacking here, right?

Mark Gold: I, yes. Santa Monica has a, everyone has a report card, right? But Santa Monica does a sustainable city report card every year. And um, so they grade themselves on how well they're meeting their numeric objectives. Not only do they have the plan, they're assessing themselves on it on a regular basis. So you can actually set budget priorities based on that, on allocated budget based on that, review people's performance based on how well they're implementing sustainable city plans.

Jim Newton: So Santa Monica has one, San Francisco. Are there other big cities that you mentioned?

Mark Gold: Seattle, Chicago, New York. Um, so those are all cities that have plans... If you go on the, don't make me explain the acronym, the ICLIE website, I mean there's hundreds throughout the world. And it all was post-Rio.

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