By Molly Peterson
Today, Los Angeles County officials will pitch a new plan to cut pollutants by capturing rain closer to where it falls -- and the county's flood control district wants property owners to pay for it.
An ambitious proposal would tax every one of the county’s 2.2 million property owners and use the revenue to capture, filter and reuse the stormwater before it ever hits the complex storm sewer system that twists and turns under Los Angeles County's nine watersheds. County supervisors hold a public hearing Tuesday to hear questions about and challenges to the proposal.
Los Angeles County regularly is home to some of the dirtiest beaches in the state, where state testing reveals bacteria and other pollutants. After a winter rain, the region’s surfers and swimmers know to stay out of the ocean. That’s because rainwater traveling through storm drains carries pollution with it.
Trash in the Los Angeles River is a visible reminder of that pollution. A county clean-up crew converges on an industrial site in Long Beach, near the river’s mouth.
A metal boom reaches out, and an arm across the river to grab debris carried along by runoff before it hits the beach. Crew chief David Duncan says winter rain's first flush is the worst. This is the second. Duncan's crew plucks a dripping mattress out of the boom and tosses it in a dumpster.
“It's not too bad,” Duncan says, almost cheerfully. “It doesn't look like we got any dogs and cats in here today. We usually end up with 3 or 4 dogs, and 4 to 5 cats. Soccer balls are the number-one ball that comes down.”
Pollution isn’t just a problem for the western part of L.A. County. Inland waters are fouled by storm runoff too. At Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, boats, swimmers and fishermen should crowd manmade Legg Lake. But geese, honking along the lawn, are our only company.
L.A. County public works engineer Hector Bordes walks along the lake. He says water here violates federal standards for heavy metals. “You can't go in the water. It's highly unfortunate,” he says. “So this is an example of a water body that needs some work.”
Under the latest set of stormwater rules, regulators could hit the county with millions of dollars in fines for exceeding pollution limits, both along the coast and inland. It’s a longstanding problem at Legg Lake, where a decades-old storm drain carries runoff from the nearby 710 freeway directly into the lake.
Bordes says the system was designed with now-outdated principles. “Years ago, if there was a flooding problem we just put a bunch of pipes underneath the ground, get those pipes connected to the rivers and get the water out of there,” Bordes says. “Now we think totally differently.”
The county says it wants to see stormwater runoff as something valuable, a potential resource for irrigation and even drinking water. That logic drives the new tax proposal, as does an increasing threat of federal regulatory action.
The county would spend half the money on regional pollution controls, use a small part for water testing and give the rest of it to cities. “What this program, if it moves forward could do is, we could take that water, clean it up, come up with some really great projects for the community, and we can put that water back into the ground,” Bordes says.
Single family homes would pay around $50 a year. Big box stores with acres of parking lot, as much as $11,000. The program penalizes pavement. The tax is based on the size of each parcel and the amount of hard surface covering the property.
Among the biggest critics of the tax are public school districts. In every neighborhood, schools include parking lots and playgrounds: hard surfaces on which rain bounces like red rubber balls at recess.
Under the proposed tax, L.A. County schools would have to come up with $14 million a year from budgets already stretched thin.
Los Angeles Unified School District facilities chief Mark Hovatter says schools deserve credit for working on the problem. Hovatter points out three layers of stormwater controls at Playa Vista Elementary that have helped the school earn a LEED Gold certification. “Through downspout filtering, every collection basin we have has a filter, and then we retain water before it flows into the system so we don’t overflood the streets,” Hovatter says. “There’s a filtering system set up in there.”
County officials are talking with schools about using parcel tax money for campus retrofits. But schools aren’t the only ones protesting. Private businesses argue that just because they’re paved doesn’t mean they’re contributing to the runoff pollution problem.
Even supporters of the county’s new emphasis on green infrastructure are asking questions about the proposed plan. LA Waterkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council have sued to encourage enforcement of Clean Water Act standards. The groups have backed regional rules that promote controls that capture, filter and reuse stormwater. But NRDC attorney Noah Garrison remains cautious about the benefits of the proposed parcel tax. He’s concerned the county’s plans aren’t specific enough to cut pollution.
“We really don't know what the money is ultimately going to go towards,” Garrison points out. “And until we see a clearer version of the selection criteria and how they're going to put this program in place, we just really don't know what impact this program will have.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is likely to take the first step toward the parcel tax by approving a ballot to send to property owners. Officials say they hope to tally up the vote by mail in March, and collect revenue beginning this summer.