Rain, Rain, Come Today, Save It for a Drier Day

From an October LADWP presentation, showing an empty Lake Mead

We all remember how LA got its water in the movie ‘Chinatown’… but that’s only part of the story.  Much of our water comes from local wells, especially during droughts.  But each bit of ground we pave (including the LA riverbed) means more rain that used to seep into the ground and recharge our wells now simply runs off into the sea.  As a result, by 1960, the city’s wells started running dry.  To fight this, water agencies made up for part of the loss by building spreading grounds to absorb some of the runoff.  Over the period 1968-2014, the spreading grounds supplied about 26,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year.  (In comparison, we import about 440,000 acre-feet of water per year from distant rivers.)

Dry Years a-comin’

Fast forward to today.  To paraphrase LADWP representative Delon Kwan’s presentation at the October 6 LADWP Neighborhood Council MOU Oversight Committee meeting:

A) Climate change is affecting our weather and reducing our snowpack
B) We now know that California has had megadroughts lasting 200 years twice in the last 2000 years, and…
C) Lake Mead has been overdrawn for decades, and is expected to run dry by 2021.

Simply put, Kwan said, Los Angeles has to plan to run without anywhere near as much imported water as it’s used to.  It may not feel like it yet, but this is a crisis.  On the bright side, though, Kwan also said that even in drought years, more stormwater falls on LA than it can use…so the trick is to be ready when the storms hit.  And a plan to do just that is on the ballot next month.

Saving Stormwater

In response to this slow-motion water crisis, Mayor Garcetti set an ambitious goal back in 2014 of reducing our use of imported water by 50% by the year 2024, and the city has been working hard to identify affordable alternate sources of water and to encourage more efficient water use.  

For instance, the 2015 LADWP Stormwater Capture Master Plan says the city can build enough centralized stormwater capture over the next 20 years to capture and infiltrate another 50,000 acre-feet per year, at a construction cost of about $30 million/year.  In addition, smaller subregional projects could contribute another 21,000 acre-feet per year, at a construction cost of about $60 million/year, assuming non-LADWP funding can be found to keep LADWP’s costs to no more than we would have spent on imported water.

And the LADWP is already building a few of those projects.  For instance, the September LADWP Neighborhood Council MOU Oversight Committee meeting gave details on the Silver Lake Reservoir project, which will contribute 159 acre-feet per year at a total construction cost to the LADWP of $8 million. (This investment is expected to pay for itself in about 35 years.)  LA Sanitation will then pay to operate and maintain the project, because it helps that department meet water quality mandates for the LA River and Ballona Creek.

Smaller construction projects are also being contemplated, including Green Streets  projects (which will allow rainwater to percolate into the ground) and on-site infiltration efforts that will help property owners ensure their own runoff goes into the ground.  These could contribute 28,000 and 14,000 acre-feet per year, respectively.

Paying for it with Measure W?

But how will we pay for all this construction?  That brings us to Measure W, the county’s “Safe Clean Water” parcel tax on the November 6th ballot.  This measure requires a two-thirds vote by county residents to pass, and would charge property owners 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable area that allows runoff to leave the property.  Low-income seniors, nonprofits, and schools are exempt, and if you can show you don’t cause runoff, you don’t have to pay the tax.  This gives property owners an incentive to use landscaping techniques that allow rain to soak into the ground, as it did before the city was built.   The county estimates the average homeowner would pay $83/year, but there is also a tool to check what your payment would be. (This reporter’s annual fee would be $163/year…at least until we re-landscape and put in a swale.)  The city of Los Angeles would receive about $40 million / year from the new tax to improve both water quality and water supply, and as a result stormwater’s contribution to LADWP’s supply would increase from its current 6% to somewhere above 12% by 2035.  The city would be required to file annual progress reports, and the projects would be subject to independent audit.  To see how funds would be allocated, and what oversight is in place to ensure proper use of those funds, see the county’s “Safe Clean Water Program” document.

Is Measure W about water quality, or about water supply?

Both.  In an interview with The Planning Report, County Supervisor Kuehl said “The water that runs down our curbs picks up trash and toxins and runs out into the ocean. As a result, our beaches and ocean are often filthy after a heavy rain. That’s a public health problem: We estimate that as many as 1.5 million people every year get sick from water contamination at LA beaches. Under the Clean Water Act, local government is required to clean up that water, but Los Angeles County has 88 cities and 200 water agencies. Each is required to address clean water, but it would be inefficient, and ultimately ineffective, to have each one of them try to do it alone, so Measure W is a regional approach. That’s why the county took this on, and why cities support the effort. Measure W funding will focus on multi-benefit projects, which means projects that not only improve water quality and water supply, but also provide green spaces, recreational opportunities, and other kinds of community amenities that improve quality of life and public health.”   It’s worth noting that the county fought a related lawsuit all the way up to the Supreme Court — and lost, leading to a related settlement.  Measure W represents a serious effort to get out in front of the issue, and to help solve water supply problems at the same time.

Earthquake Insurance

Homeowners were angry when the power went out for two days recently… but experts like UCLA’s Dr. Jon Stewart warn that an earthquake on the San Andreas fault could interrupt our water supply for months because the aqueducts and levees that Los Angeles relies on to import water are highly vulnerable to seismic damage.  Improving our local groundwater supply is an important part of preparing for that eventuality.

How does this differ from the similar 2004 Proposition O?

In 2004, voters in the City of Los Angeles passed Proposition O, which authorized a one-time sale of $500 million in bonds to help meet water quality mandates.  It was city-only, whereas Measure W is county-wide.  Unlike Measure W, it still charged property owners even if their property produced no runoff. Its August 2018 status report lists the completed projects; this is what paid for all those screens that keep trash from flowing into storm drains, and the renovation of the lake in Echo Park, for instance.  It also increased stormwater capture capacity by 26,000 acre-feet/year.   LA Sanitation’s June 2018 report on Proposition O has a ‘Lessons Learned’ section that says in part a) selection criteria should have been more quantitative, and b) a one-time bond measure isn’t enough.  Proposition O attempts to address both of these issues, in that it has detailed selection criteria, ongoing scientific monitoring, and provides an ongoing funding stream for stormwater management and water quality.

Endorsements / Opposition

The “Yes on Measure W” coalition lists endorsements from the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Pasadena, as well as three coalitions of local governments, two unions, and dozens of environmental and other organizations.  Also, the transcript of the county board meeting that put Measure W on the ballot shows that the California Metals Coalition, representing 100,000 jobs in Southern California, strongly supports the measure.  And finally, the LA Times endorses it.

Those opposed include some generally anti-tax advocates, as well as one business group that argues there should be a sunset clause included, and that homeowner recertification requirements would be too onerous.

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was originally opposed, but then worked with the county to include a stormwater credit program (also favored by the environmentalists at the National Resources Defense Council), to steer more of the funds to previously unfunded water quality mandates.  The Chamber weighed in on other modifications, too (see the red sections in the final measure), and as a result,  the group is now neutral on the measure.  According to the LA Times, some other business groups continue to oppose the measure, despite the changes… although reportedly the vote by one of those groups (BizFed) was divided, and the motion to oppose only carried by a single vote.

Locally, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s sustainability committee voted unanimously to recommend the GWNC support Measure W, and a motion of support passed the full board unopposed on October 10th.

Integrated Water Plan “One Water LA” shows city’s priorities

This article has mentioned stormwater management and conservation, but those are just two pieces of the puzzle. There are so many different water plans and subplans, from so many agencies, that it’s hard to know what’s going on.  The city does have an “Water Integrated Resource Plan” which gives a good overview, but its name and website were obscure… so for its 2018 update, they renamed it the “One Water LA Plan“,  www.onewaterla.org.  It invites city residents to “Imagine a day without water” — something Cape Town residents had to do very recently, and are still doing — to convey how important the plan is for the city’s future.  Its “Stormwater and Urban Runoff Facilities Plan” (see page ES-12 of its executive summary) lists upcoming compliance deadlines and what the City plans to build to comply with them.

To learn more:

And remember, however you feel about the issue, vote this November 6th!

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About Daniel Kegel

Dan Kegel is a software engineer and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council's Sustainability Committee. He also volunteers with Citizens' Climate Lobby Los Angeles and is an occasional contributor to the Buzz.

4 thoughts on “Rain, Rain, Come Today, Save It for a Drier Day

  1. This is an advocacy piece for Measure W masquerading as news. I would have preferred more details on how much money would be raised, how would it be spent, how prior water bonds have been spent, and what both sides of the issue have to say about it.

    1. Hi George,
      thanks for your comment.
      I’ve updated the article a bit to mention where to find out more about Measure W’s funding and oversight.
      – Dan

      1. Hi George, I updated the article further with a section about the somewhat similar previous Proposition O. Thanks again!
        – Dan

  2. I updated the article again towards the bottom with a link to the city’s “preferred portfolio” of water projects from http://OneWaterLA.org; I suspect those are a good guess at what the city would like to fund with the revenue from Measure W.

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