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L.A.'s stormwater is so filthy it's illegal. Measure W would clean it up

L.A.'s stormwater is so filthy it's illegal. Measure W would clean it up
Rain water collects in Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles, an area prone to street flooding in stormy weather, on Jan. 27, 2017. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When rain comes to Los Angeles, a certain kind of relief sets in. The land springs to life. The dust and grit and oil slick, accumulated over a summer of dry weather, gets washed away down storm drains. Everything gleams anew.

But this relief comes at a heavy cost. The stormwater that streams down our streets and into our creeks and rivers is heavily polluted. Oil, gasoline, industrial runoff, heavy metals and many tons of trash are carried by the rain, untreated, straight to our waterways and ocean. This pollution destroys ecosystems, kills wildlife and dirties our beaches. Not to mention that billions of gallons of much-needed fresh water drain out to sea.

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In a few weeks the voters of Los Angeles County will have the opportunity to address this problem by supporting Measure W, also known as the Safe Clean Water Program. It’s a parcel tax that, if passed, would begin to fund thousands of backlogged stormwater infrastructure projects that the county has had in the works for decades.

There are significant environmental, social and legal reasons for supporting Measure W. It also happens to be good for business.

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Measure W is a parcel tax that, if passed, would begin to fund thousands of backlogged stormwater infrastructure projects.


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L.A. County and the surrounding region has for decades been required to comply with the Clean Water Act, which makes it illegal to allow stormwater pollution to flow into the ocean and other waterways. For decades, the county and its 88 cities have largely ignored the law’s mandates, perhaps in hopes that the costs of compliance could be deferred.

As soon as 2020, L.A. County and its municipalities will face millions, if not billions, in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. These fines will be passed on to tax payers and businesses.

Measure W provides funding to help the county come into compliance.

Yes, it creates a new tax. But it’s far more sensible to pay this nominal tax now than it would be to send our money to regulators later. Moreover, the tax will pay for something we have to do anyway: clean our stormwater.

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Thousands of businesses in L.A. County have already invested in stormwater treatment technologies to meet their obligations under the Clean Water Act, and their investments will be credited against the new tax. But three to four times as many businesses have done nothing, instead rolling the dice that non-enforcement will continue.

Measure W credits businesses that have made the right investments while finally bringing enforcement and fairness to a system that for too long has favored those who violate it.

Although the measure is concerned primarily with the control of stormwater pollution, many of the projects it would fund have the added benefits of improving stormwater capture and groundwater recharge. This would increase L.A. County’s sources of local water significantly, which in turn would reduce our pumping needs, thus lowering our electricity demands. The billions of gallons of rain that fall in L.A. County every year are one of our best untapped resources.

Opponents of the measure have three main concerns, but each one is unwarranted. They say the funding it would provide is a blank check to the government without independent oversight. In fact, the measure calls for independent oversight of both the funding and all projects it would support — oversight that would be carried out at the local level by municipal, scientific, environmental and business leaders.

They also say the measure lacks a sunset provision. But the parcel tax would not escalate over time. A few decades from now, the funding will dwindle to support merely the ongoing operations and maintenance of the stormwater projects.

Finally, critics complain that the measure doesn’t list the projects that would receive funding. But the county and each of the cities that would be affected have listed their priority stormwater projects publicly for decades.

Every time we pollute the ocean or our groundwater, we take out a loan that will be paid for by our children — not only with greater clean-up costs but greater health risks. For too many years, we have hoped against all evidence to the contrary that water scarcity, pollution and environmental decay will go away on its own. L.A. voters can turn this around by voting to support Measure W.

Peter Brooks is the vice president of a water technology firm in Los Angeles. He is a Fulbright Scholar and former director of the Harvard Water Federalism Initiative. William W. Funderburk, Jr. is the co-founder of Castellón & Funderburk, where he practices environmental and energy law. He served as vice president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2018.

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