When the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced last year an ambitious groundwater treatment program for the contaminated San Fernando Basin, the agency had its eyes on a state water bond for crucial funding to get the project built.
So as the Legislature works to craft a revamped water bond to put before voters in November, Los Angeles-area lawmakers have made funds for groundwater cleanup their top priority in negotiations.
But compromise on a new bond has proved elusive, and legislators departed the Capitol last week for a monthlong recess with murky prospects for a deal.
The fate of the city's groundwater cleanup effort — and its overall goal to cut dependence on imported water — is closely tied to which bond proposal, if any, wins the approval of lawmakers, Gov. Jerry Brown and voters.
The bulk of Los Angeles' local water rights are in the San Fernando Basin. But because of a plume of toxic chemicals under the basin, the DWP can pump only about half the water it holds the rights to.
Jim McDaniel, DWP senior assistant general manager, said the department estimates that "within five to eight years, the plume will become so dense and so permanent that we will pretty much not be able to pump any of the wells."
Los Angeles now gets about 11% of its water from local sources, mainly groundwater. A restored San Fernando Basin could yield more safe groundwater, and hold recycled water and captured storm water.
As a result, the city could be less reliant on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Colorado River.
"There isn't any other investment that would reduce our dependence on imported water more than cleaning up the groundwater in the San Fernando Valley," said Ruben Gonzalez, a senior vice president with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Building treatment plants would cost an estimated $600 million to $900 million, McDaniel said. The earliest the plants would be completed is 2022.
State bond funds are not the only source of revenue for the project. Funds will also come from higher water rates, but the extent to which ratepayers will shoulder the cost will be determined, in part, by what happens with the bond.
"The need doesn't go away if the bond doesn't pass," Gonzalez said. "What will happen is there will be higher rates — higher rates for residents and higher rates for businesses."
The L.A. City Council must approve any rate hikes. Mark Gold, acting director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, said the council may be more likely to approve higher rates if they are coupled with money from the bond.
"Because DWP's relationship with the public is so poor, the difficulty in raising water rates is substantial," Gold said. Funding from the state bond is "the sort of carrot needed to make a water rate increase much more palatable politically to L.A. City Council."
Some items in the bond discussions have generated ferocious policy spats, such as whether money for ecosystem restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta might help smooth the way for the governor's controversial plan to build enormous twin tunnels to move water south.
The merits of cleaning up polluted groundwater are not so fiercely contested. Most water policy stakeholders — from business groups to environmentalists — support funding such efforts. Instead, the question is how much.
The L.A. Chamber and other business groups want $1 billion set aside for groundwater cleanup. But with Brown signaling he wants a pared-down bond to go before voters, groundwater cleanup is now competing against other water projects for its share of funds.
No bond proposal would designate money specifically for the San Fernando Valley. The DWP project would apply for grants or loans. Cleanup money could also go to existing treatment plants in the San Gabriel Valley and Riverside County, as well as projects in other parts of the state.
"The bigger the pot [of money], the greater the likelihood we can get a bigger part of that. And that's why we can't allow it to go too low," said Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park).
An $11.1-billion bond, originally written in 2009, is currently on the November ballot and would put $1 billion toward groundwater cleanup. But Los Angeles lawmakers have been reticent to back that bond, which critics say is bloated with earmarks and unappealing to voters.
"If we could choose between leaving the bond on the ballot that wouldn't pass and putting a new one on the ballot that is pork-free and would pass, I think we'd choose the pork-free option," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles).
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