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Sunday, November 25, 2012
L.A. County proposes water fee on all parcels to clean up storm water
While rainfall can be a
welcome sight in the dry Southland, when water hits the region's
concrete and blacktop landscape, it turns into a giant headache for
beachgoers and environmentalists: untreated storm water or urban runoff.
The cost of addressing that toxic soup - which fouls inland
rivers and lakes, makes beach-goers and surfers sick, kills marine life
and taints fish and shellfish sold as food - has got environmentalists
and county leaders turning to a new parcel tax.
Water managers view rain rushing down gutters differently -
not as pollution but as a lost resource.
Every gallon of rain water that
funnels down hundreds of miles of concrete channels to the Pacific
Ocean represents a gallon of drinking water they now have to purchase
from Northern California or the Colorado River at much higher costs.
Already, Los Angeles County gets 60 percent of its water from such
imported sources, even as supplies dwindle and prices skyrocket.
So water agencies have teamed up with environmentalists,
regulatory agencies and the county of Los Angeles to tackle the newest
front in the ecological battle: urban runoff.
They are backing a proposed parcel fee - some call it a tax -
that would annually charge property owners across the county from $54
for a single family home to $11,000 for a big box retailer to raise
approximately $275 million a year to clean up pollution runoff before it
reaches local rivers, beaches and parks.
Before the proposal can advance, the county will give
residents until Jan. 15 to file an objection. If a majority of property
owners don't object, the Board of Supervisors can approve a mail-in
ballot to be sent to all property owners.
A simple majority of support would create the first revenue stream dedicated solely for the treatment of storm water.
—— An urban runoff story
With regulations in place to stop dumping from big polluters
like chemical companies, environmentalists and regulators working to
keep pollution out of the ocean, lakes and rivers have turned to the
millions of homeowners whose lawns overflow with fertilizers and whose
pets drop feces into city streets that wash into storm drains.
"One of the primary sources of water pollution is nonpoint
sources," explained Kerjon Lee, spokesperson for the Los Angeles County
Department of Public Works. "It is people putting cigarette butts on the
street. It is the guy changing his oil or his anti-freeze in the street
and allowing some of that to leak into the storm drain, or the guy who
just dumps it into the catch basin."
After a storm, rainwater moves across the county, picking up
animal feces, bacteria, lead, arsenic, waste oil and other toxins from
automobiles as well as hazardous chemicals such as lawn fertilizers and
household pesticides. The toxic soup travels hundreds of miles in
washes, creeks, streams into recreational areas and eventually, the
For example, urban runoff in the Rio Hondo River pollutes the
lake at Peck Road Park near Arcadia and El Monte, making swimming and
eating fish caught there dangerous.
When the runoff from the county's 529 miles of open rivers and
channels and 2,800 miles of underground storm drains reaches the ocean,
devastation awaits sea life. It can also sicken human visitors and
cause beach closures.
Last summer, Heal the Bay said seven of the 10 most polluted
beaches in the state were in L.A. County. Overall, 25 percent of the
beaches in the state received a D or F in the environmental group's 2012
Beach Report Card.
Swimming in contaminated beaches can lead to gastroenteritis
and ear, nose and throat infections, according to the county and
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science attributed
hundreds of dead seals, sea lions and dolphins that wash up onto the
California shoreline each year to urban runoff and reduced food sources.
At the outlet of the San Gabriel River near Long Beach, NASA's
Goddard Earth Sciences Center found a "dead zone" where urban pollution
feeds an abnormal algae
bloom that literally sucks the oxygen out of the water. As a result,
fish and shellfish suffocate and only worms and jellyfish survive.
The inside of a catch basin on Altadena Drive in Altadena Wednesday, November 21, 2012. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)
—— An unfunded mandate
The federal Clean Water Act keeps on spitting out mandates to
counties and cities, the most recent coming from the Los Angeles
Regional Water Quality Control Board. On Nov. 9, the Board passed the
MS4 Permit Order, which says all 88 cities in the county must present
storm water clean-up projects to the Board within the next 18 months.
The only exception is Long Beach, which has its own plan.
While the feds and the Regional Board breath down the necks of
the cities to stop this scourge, cities say the order amounts to an
"It is extremely difficult for cities to move forward," said
Monrovia Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, who sits on the Regional Water board.
"Nobody has a budget for it. There is no revenue stream. It is an
unfunded federal mandate."
And an expensive one at that.
Lutz said the city of Los Angeles has told the Board it will
cost the city between $5 billion to $8 billion to treat all its urban
runoff. For the foothill town of Monrovia, she puts the cost at $3
million to $5 million.
Sam Unger, executive officer of the Regional Water Board, said
cities can try low-tech solutions such as encouraging homeowners to
capture water in rain cisterns. Owners of parking lots can resurface
using more water-permeable material to allow rainwater to seep back into
Other more high-tech solutions include diverting storm water
into sewage treatment plants, Unger said. "These are very effective," he
"The new regulations are designed to give municipalities the
flexibility to design a strategy that meets clean water goals in the
most cost-effective way," he said in a prepared statement.
While Lutz agreed the new regulations are flexible and promote
groups working together on regional solutions, the one thing they do
not do is supply money.
That's where the county's Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure comes in.
—— A parcel fee proposed
With the OK from the state Legislature given in 2010, the
county Department of Public Works has proposed the parcel fee to clean
up polluted runoff.
The water fee would average $54 per single-family property,
$20 per condominium, between $300 and $400 for a 7-Eleven and about
$11,000 for the typical big-box wholesale or home improvement store 10
acres in size, according to Hector J. Bordas, area engineer with the
county Department of Public Works.
Fees would be paid by 2.1 million property owners. No parcels
are exempt, Bordas said. That means, schools, churches, cities and even
the county would have to pay a parcel fee if the mail-in measure
receives more than 50 percent approval.
The fee would be added to the county's consolidated property tax bill.
Half of the money would go to Watershed Authority Groups that
are affiliated with such areas as the Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek,
upper and lower San Gabriel River, Dominguez Channel, Santa Clara River
and the Rio Hondo River.
About 40 percent would go to cities and unincorporated areas
for local storm water improvement projects. For example, Monrovia and
many similar-sized cities would get about $300,000 per year, Lutz said.
Bordas, in a talk to area managers of private industry earlier
this month, said he's reaching out to business and government alike to
get support for the proposal. He's met with the Los Angeles Unified
School District, which earlier in the year told the Board of Supervisors
that the $4.8 million it would pay under the proposal "was a major
Each 10-acre elementary school would be assessed about $8,000 a
year, Bordas said. That could add up for school districts. For example,
Hacienda La Puente Unified School District would be charged about
$232,000 for just its K-6, K-8 and middle schools.
Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe spoke against the
measure in July, when the Board voted 3-2 to move ahead with the
Knabe called it "a sneak attack" and Antonovich said the federal and state government should pay for cleanup.
But Bordas said for cities deciding between paying for police
and fire and paying for storm water cleanup, the new parcel fee would be
"Right now, there is no dedicated revenue stream to clean up
storm water. We are proposing the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure,"
he told the Industry Advisory Council in November.
—— A fresh water source
Water managers - from Metropolitan Water District to state and
local agencies - say the proposal could provide much-needed water to
the region. They say that storm water is the nearest and most plentiful
"But doing storm water capture is tough," Bordas said. "It is
dirty. It is polluted. It picks up pesticides, metals and trash. You
can't just put it into the water supply," he said.
One solution is to capture it as soon as it hits the ground,
said Mike Antos, research manager with the Council for Watershed Health,
an L.A.-based nonprofit that studies the San Gabriel and Los Angeles
Menchaca, a technician working for United Stormwater, Inc, a contractor
for the LA County Department of Public Works is unscrewing bolts to
inspect a catch basin on Olive Avenue in Altadena Wednesday, November
21, 2012. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)
Antos' group found that before urbanization, 95 percent of
rainfall in Southern California went back into the ground. Today, with
concrete and asphalt covering the region, 60 percent of rainfall is lost
to the ocean, Antos said.
"We'll never get all back to only 5 percent of the rain
getting out to the ocean," he said. "But we know there are projects that
can solve water quality and take a bite out of water quantity problems,
and also take bites out of climate change."
This can be done through localized infiltration basins that
treat storm water directly under a park or shopping center. For example,
the Council points to such a system installed beneath the neighborhood
of Sun Valley, in the San Fernando Valley.
The county installed an infiltration system to catch chronic
floodwaters, treat the runoff and pump it into the ground. The water is
naturally cleansed by the sediments and rocks, Antos said.
The city of Downey put in a similar storm water treatment
system under the old Boeing site. The area became Downey Landing, a
commercial development, Bordas said.
Should the measure pass, he suggests building infiltration
systems under each of the county's 500 parks. "There are hundreds of
government parcels out there available we can take a look at," Bordas
"This is like free water," explained Kenneth Manning,
executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority, a
state agency that helps clean ground water. "And the best filter for
that water is the natural soil."
Lutz said the upcoming measure is the only hope for both
cities trying to clean runoff and for cities trying to break away from
buying expensive, imported water.
"This will help us be the masters of our own fate," Lutz said.