New Directions in Stormwater Management

15 Jul

In Los Angeles County, the finger pointing about who is responsible for cleaning up polluted stormwater has bubbled up to the United States Supreme Court.

In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court found that the County and its Flood Control District were in violation of the Clean Water Act by allowing the release of untreated water into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. The Flood Control District claims that it cannot be held responsible for the polluted waterways, since it is not the source of the pollution. The County is hoping that the Supreme Court agrees, and finds that the County’s Flood Control District is not responsible for mitigating pollution from urban runoff that ends up in local waterways.

The battle in Los Angeles County represents a national trend of cash-poor localities scrambling to comply with the regulations of the Clean Water Act.  Cities are predictably looking to other entities to foot the bill.

One option is to have area property owners share the costs. In Los Angeles County, the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure is a proposed parcel tax. This proposal could generate approximately $300 million in annual revenue to clean up the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers, which have been polluted by untreated urban runoff.

To implement the parcel tax, the County will have to win the support of property owners, who would vote on the measure. In a nutshell, each parcel would be assessed a fee based on zoning, land use, size, and how much runoff it produces.

It’ll come as no surprise that the proposal has already fired-up naysayers in the blogosphere.  Angry bloggers aside, on July 3rd the Board of Supervisors approved putting the measure to a vote in March 2013 [PDF], pending the results of a protest hearing at the end of the year. (Some may be disappointed to learn that a protest hearing generally does not involve pitchforks or torches.)

If property owners approve the parcel tax, the next step will be deciding on how the money gets spent.  Ideally, a portion of the funds will be dedicated to adopting more natural (i.e., “green”) approaches to stormwater management. Green stormwater management is emerging as a cost-effective approach to dealing with runoff. Traditional (e.g., stormwater drains and pipes) “grey infrastructure” practices require huge investments in treatment facilities.

If LA County is looking for a success story, it should look to the East Coast where Philadelphia has become a leader in implementing this approach. The City of Brotherly Love already boasts a number of ongoing and completed projects, including 152 stormwater tree trenches, 42 rain gardens, and 27 porous paving projects.

The Southland could learn from Philly’s example and possibly develop some new ways to leverage green stormwater investments for job creation.  A trifecta of benefits could accrue to the region by building green stormwater projects that clean up our waterways, green our cities, and create good paying jobs for disadvantaged workers.

If policymakers are looking for a justification to invest in a workforce development component, the Economic Roundtable has got the data. A recent study [PDF] indicates that the dollars invested in green infrastructure yield impressive multiplier effects in the region. For example, for every $74,400 that is invested in water use efficiency, one person per year of employment is created. Moreover, every dollar invested in water use efficiency generates two dollars in economic activity. These investments favorably compare with investments in sectors such as the entertainment industry and energy efficiency retrofits.

Money from the parcel tax could also be leveraged to assist other ongoing federal efforts to naturalize the oft-maligned and underestimated Los Angeles River. The pending U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ARBOR Study could be a powerful tool for redirecting investments. The study, which focuses on the soft-bottomed ten-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River called the Glendale Narrows, may be used as the basis for directing investments that revitalize the section while providing flood protection for the surrounding area. The ARBOR stretch of the river could be the most pivotal area for the implementation of the numerous LA River revitalization projects.

Upon finalization and congressional approval of the ARBOR Study, a 35% non-federal match could attract federal funds that will pay for 65% of the project – an impressive ratio in this era of strapped local finance. Projects proposed by the ARBOR Study include invasive plant removal, habitat connectivity and passive recreation.

One Response to “New Directions in Stormwater Management”


  1. Adapting to the New Normal « The ELP Blog - November 20, 2012

    […] to be filtered an absorbed rather than channeling runoff to over-burdened sewer systems. As we noted a few months back, these ideas are beginning to gain traction at the local […]

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