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Friday, January 29, 2010

Heal the Bay's Executive Director Looks Back on the Stormwater Program's 20 Years

by Mark Gold

After 20 years, the City of Los Angeles’ stormwater program is at a crossroads.

The program has come a long way since its beginnings in the early nineties as a result of the Hyperion consent decree and new regulations under the federal Clean Water Act and the first countywide stormwater permit. The City has done a superb job on stormwater education for students, businesses and the public. During the early 1990s, we worked closely with the City on our Gutter Patrol program where volunteers helped stencil tens of thousands of catch basins all over the city. Today, the City runs the program and you can’t find a catch basin in the city without a “No Dumping” stencil.

Los Angeles has led the way on clean beaches by installing about a dozen dry weather runoff diversions. I still remember the press event with Mayor Bradley for the first diversion at the Pico-Kenter stormdrain at Santa Monica Beach. Dry weather runoff diversions have transformed numerous “F” beaches on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card into “A” beaches during the summer months. Soon, thanks to Proposition O funds for year round dry weather runoff diversions, most LA beaches will soon get “A”s for the entire year. Runoff diversions have protected the public health of millions of swimmers and helped restore the image of beautiful and safe Santa Monica Bay beaches.

Another milestone for the City was the passage of Proposition O. Over 76% of the public voted for the 500 million dollar measure to clean up our rivers, lakes, beaches and bays by reducing stormwater pollution. Proposition O is providing the capital funds needed to divert dry weather runoff, clean up Machado Lake and Echo Park Lake, capture and infiltrate runoff for local water supply in the Valley, and infiltrate stormwater in the Santa Monica Bay watershed to help clean up the Bay.

Although the pace of the projects isn’t as fast as I would have hoped, the vast majority of Proposition O projects are good projects that reduce runoff pollution and provide other benefits such as greening the City, reducing flood risk and augmenting local water supplies. Unfortunately, Proposition O only pays for building the projects themselves. The funds can not be used for operations and maintenance so the new projects are actually adding to the watershed protection programs ongoing budget difficulties.

Recently, the City has changed their approach to stormwater pollution prevention. They’ve always talked a good game on watershed protection, but in the last few years, there has been a transformation that has gone beyond calling the department the Watershed Protection Division. The division developed a Water Quality Compliance Master Plan that takes an engineering approach to linking watershed planning with water quality compliance.

The City is about to pass a far reaching Low Impact Development ordinance that will require new and redevelopment to capture and reuse or infiltrate 100% of the runoff generated from a three quarter inch storm. The ordinance will make developers, business and homeowners partners in efforts to reduce stormwater pollution and augment local water supplies by helping to create a green infrastructure in the City. I hope that the City will move forward with green streets and alleys requirements that will further the move towards Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision of making LA the cleanest, greenest major city in the country.

Finally, the City was an innovator in stormwater program funding. Back in the early 1990s, the City created a Stormwater Pollution Abatement Charge (SPAC) to pay for new programs. Unfortunately, thanks to Proposition 218, the City Council lost the ability to increase SPAC fees without a two thirds vote of the electorate. As a result, the SPAC has not been increased in nearly 20 years. The cost of the City’s stormwater and watershed protection program should be approximately $120 million a year, yet the SPAC generates less than $30 million a year. Even today’s stormwater and watershed protection programs cost the City about $60 million a year, so there the program always has to compete for general funds: an extremely difficult task in a poor economy.

Despite two decades of progress and the vision of Mayor Villaraigosa, the promise of Los Angeles’ efforts to transform into a City with a green infrastructure that protects our fundamental right to clean water is in jeopardy unless we do something to solve the funding crisis. Clean water is a necessity, a legal requirement and a right and is not something to be sacrificed during tough economic times. The challenge is, will we be bold enough to move forward on the promise and vision of a green LA with clean water, or will we maintain the status quo.

Mark Gold is president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental organization.

Click here to view all of the articles in Issue 9 of the LA Stormwater newsletter.

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