Opinion

New parklands and a shimmering transit system won't matter if L.A. doesn't solve its water woes

On Nov. 8, Los Angeles voted to invest in infrastructure improvements that will transform the region for generations to come. Where once Angelenos were dependent on our cars, the passage of Measure M heralds the dawn of an integrated mass transit and alternative mobility network to rival that of any city in the world. Measure A will help end L.A.’s notorious park and public space poverty. Measure HHH will build thousands of units of supportive housing for the homeless. And at both state and local levels Angelenos voted to invest in educational infrastructure for K-12 schools and local community colleges. 

Yet as life-changing as these new projects stand to be, one of the region’s most critical infrastructure needs is still being largely ignored: water. 

To many, there is a sense that we’ve already sufficiently invested in water infrastructure. California’s $7.5 billion Proposition 1 in 2014 provided funds for recycled water, stormwater capture and treatment, groundwater remediation, and safe drinking water for those deprived of that basic legal right. Those funds are absolutely critical for the state’s water infrastructure needs. But they can’t be used for operations or maintenance and they aren’t nearly enough to pay for the full sustainable water infrastructure makeover that California — and especially Los Angeles County  — so sorely needs. 

At the local level, the recently approved L.A. County park bond, Measure A, will provide some local groundwater relief by capturing and infiltrating stormwater in multi-use parks. Culver City just voted overwhelmingly to assess a parcel fee of $99 per year in order to generate about $2 million a year for stormwater pollution abatement efforts to help clean up Ballona Creek and Santa Monica Bay.  And in 2004, Los Angeles voters approved Proposition O, a $500 million bond that funded the rebirth of Echo Park Lake, the nearly completed Machado Lake and Wilmington Drain cleanup and restoration projects, and numerous projects to keep trash and fecal bacteria out of Santa Monica and San Pedro bays.

Those dollars, however, are nearly spent — and while we can celebrate the progress that has been made, the most crucial projects needed to transform our water infrastructure have yet to be built.

Currently, the vast majority of L.A. County’s stormwater (more than 500,000 acre-feet in an average storm year) picks up pollutants and goes straight into our rivers and coastal waters with no treatment. The largest exception is the San Gabriel River watershed, where 200,000 acre-feet per year are recharged into groundwater basins. Unfortunately, the success on the San Gabriel has not been matched on the Los Angeles River, Dominguez Channel or Ballona Creek. Recent Los Angeles Department of Water and Power estimates show that we can capture and infiltrate approximately 200,000 acre-feet of runoff from the L.A. River watershed and adjacent areas, through a combination of large-scale recharge basins and smaller efforts like green streets and alleys, dry wells, infiltration trenches and cisterns.

These plans are achievable, but they need to be funded.

In 2006, the city of Santa Monica passed a stormwater parcel fee to reduce polluted runoff to the bay and to augment local water supplies. Shortly thereafter, L.A. County discussed passing a similar countywide fee of $54 per parcel to generate up to $270 million countywide. But, in 2013, after years of debate, the L.A. County supervisors rejected a proposal to put that measure on the ballot.

Now is the time to revisit that decision. In the years since the fee was first proposed, we have turned over an entirely new board of supervisors — which means that there is an unprecedented opportunity to turn rhetoric into action. Putting off a fee even further into the future would mean the continuation of our flawed and wasteful 20th century flood control ethic of sending precious rainwater to the ocean as soon as possible, with little regard for water quality or maximizing local water supplies.

Even if the supervisors do get around to passing a new fee, however, capturing stormwater isn’t enough to make our water infrastructure sustainable. We also need our coastal sewage treatment plants to become a reliable, drought-proof new source of water supply. 

Between the Hyperion and Tillman Treatment plants in the city and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts treatment plant in Carson, there is a potential of up to 400,000 acre-feet per year of water for the region. That’s nearly the annual water demand for the entire city of Los Angeles.

These types of advanced treatment plants produce water that far exceeds Safe Drinking Water Act standards. Retrofitting our existing facilities to meet those standards will cost billions, which will mean higher water rates. Additional funds will need to come from sources other than ratepayers including the state, potentially the Metropolitan Water District, and even (fingers crossed) the federal government. President-elect Trump, after all, did say: "We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

With another dry winter predicted, the vulnerability of our water supply has never been greater. Lake Mead water levels are at an all-time low. Last year, the L.A. Aqueduct provided the city with a record low 25,000 acre-feet.  And water supply from the State Water Project relies on the fickle winter snowpack from year to year.

Sustainable water infrastructure won’t come cheaply, but it will be far more affordable if we invest now, rather than waiting for a disaster to spur us to action.

Mark Gold is a director on the Metropolitan Water District Board representing Los Angeles and the associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA.

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