A boom floating at the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach collects trash by the ton. After each rainstorm, the debris washes downstream toward the ocean — plastic bags, tires, mattresses, spray cans, a mannequin head.
Last year, the Los Angeles County contractor that operates the boom hauled more than 1,000 tons of garbage from the site. But many of the pollutants dumped into county waters by storm and urban runoff are invisible: pesticides, bacteria from animal waste, vehicle fluids and tiny pieces of metal and rubber washed off of roadways.
Most watersheds in the county do not consistently meet water quality standards, despite the fact that Los Angeles County and its flood control district spent more than $100 million last year on clean water programs, and cities spent millions more.
Now, county officials are pushing for a ballot measure that would impose a new parcel fee on property owners to raise about $290 million a year for initiatives to reduce storm and urban runoff pollution.
The fee would be assessed to all 2.2 million parcels within the flood control district, which encompasses most of the county except for portions of the Antelope Valley. It would range from $54 a year for most single-family homes to thousands of dollars for large commercial properties. The proceeds would be divided among municipalities where the properties are located, new watershed authority groups that would work on regional projects, and the flood control district.
Officials cited a variety of possible projects — including large-scale initiatives like the Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach, where runoff is treated and conveyed to a basin for storage and groundwater recharge, and smaller-scale measures like installing and maintaining catch screens to prevent trash from entering the storm drain system.
Some local government officials and environmental groups support the measure, while others are skeptical.
Suja Lowenthal, a Long Beach City Council member, said stopping storm water pollution requires a regional solution. "We as an individual city have probably tried everything possible to manage it on our own, and we just can't do it," she said.
On the other side, school districts have complained about the hit to their budgets should the measure pass. The Los Angeles Unified School District wrote to the county to express concerns about the estimated $4.8 million a year the district would have to pay at a time when schools "are making cuts to core educational programs."
Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the county Public Works Department, said the flood control district is talking with school officials about ways to ease the impacts, including funding capital projects like parks on school sites.
On Jan. 15, the county Board of Supervisors could vote to move forward with an election on the measure unless it receives written protests from a majority of property owners first. The election would probably be conducted entirely by mail.
Notices and protest forms began going out to property owners in early December. Some property owners — and Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, who oppose the measure as a tax increase — complained that the notice contained no return envelope and looked like a piece of junk mail.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky pointed out that the notices were marked on the front "Official Notice to Property Owners of Public Hearing," and included the estimated fee that would be paid by each property owner.
Yaroslavsky said at a previous hearing on the proposal that it is "critically important" for the county to address the storm water issue on its own terms.
"If we don't do this … we will have this imposed on us by a court, by a regulatory agency or by both," he said.
Municipalities have rarely faced penalties for violating regulations on storm water pollution. In the Los Angeles region, only the city of Torrance has been fined by the regional water board in the last 10 years for violating its storm water permit.
The county and cities will face new requirements under updated storm water regulations adopted by the regional water board in November, but it remains unclear how the new rules will affect enforcement.
Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the flood control district, said that if the proposed fee does not pass, the county and cities "will have to take a hard look at what's required... and what can be done with the funding available."
Meanwhile, the county is fighting a lawsuit brought in 2008 by a pair of environmental groups, charging that the flood control district had violated its storm water permit. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. County officials said the lawsuit was not the impetus behind the proposed ballot measure.
Noah Garrison, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the group supports the storm water fee in concept. "But the devil's in the details, and what we really haven't seen is specific criteria" for the projects to be funded, he said.
Kirsten James, water quality director with Heal the Bay, an environmental group not involved in the lawsuit, said her organization supports the county measure.
Without it, she said, "Unfortunately, I think we'll see a lot of nothing happening.... I think some cities will take the gamble of enforcement versus not doing anything."