LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl Announces Stormwater Fee Framework At VX2017

Sheila Kuehl

At VerdeXchange 2017, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl announced her plans to introduce a motion to develop a countywide funding measure for stormwater capture and management. In a powerful regional stormwater collaboration VX2017 panel, which also included Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board; Robert Garcia, Mayor of Long Beach; Jeff Kightlinger, GM of Metropolitan Water District; and Matt Petersen, Chief Sustainability Officer for City of Los Angeles, Sup. Kuehl announced her intension to fund pertinent regional water infrastructure through a parcel fee on property owners.  VX News presents an excerpt of the panel. 

Felicia Marcus: We’re having this panel on stormwater management at a VerdeXchange Conference that has more panels on water than ever before—and it’s standing room only. This is a “watershed” moment of its own.

We haven’t had this level of focus, effort, and agreement before. We haven’t had the chance to talk about the intricacies and the challenges of making this work across jurisdictions.

We’ve got to figure out how to capture all the water we can locally. The answer is clear: integrated water management, which is conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, etc. But it is complicated, and it requires people to work across traditional silos of geography, of disciplines, of agencies, even within the same institution.

We are poised at a moment to actually break through the gridlock on this issue that we’ve been talking about for a good two decades. Never have we had the kind of attention we have today—and more importantly, never have we had the opportunity to have wastewater, flood control, water supply folks, and urban greening folks work together at the level that they are now, because of the political leadership on this panel today.

Sheila Kuehl: Water governance throughout the greater LA region is, I think by everybody’s measure, inefficient. It is very fractured, and yet overlapping. More often than not, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing, and certainly can’t work with it. Even when it does, everything is sort of ad hoc—we’re not thinking overall, or globally.

For decades, we didn’t need to do very much about it; that splintered approach was actually kind of working for us. But a variety of stressors—the ever-increasing population, a prolonged drought, the pollution of many local aquifers—have made the status quo untenable. We cannot any longer work in such a splintered fashion. If we want to be water secure in future generations, we have to make a change.

Last year, I convened a couple dozen state and regional water representatives to start the conversation on regional water resiliency. After that meeting, I drafted a motion directing the County Department of Public Works to develop a water resilience plan for the region, to help us better prepare for the long-term effects of climate change.We’re already capturing significant amounts of stormwater in our stormwater recharge basins, but we’ve got to capture even more.

Last week, the storm that hit LA dumped about four inches of rain over the county. From this storm alone, the infrastructure we have in place captured enough water to serve roughly 11,000 people for a year. But that’s only a small fraction of all the water that fell over the last few weeks, and of course, only a small fraction of the people who need to be served. A lot more water raced down the streets and right out into the ocean, where it was lost to us.

We have a unique opportunity before us to make sure that we have enough water to survive, and more than that, to thrive—despite longer and harsher droughts. And we can do it. We can do it by building projects that capture, treat, and reuse stormwater.

Our parks can be built to filter stormwater and store it for future use. Plantings adjacent to roads can do the same. When these projects are completed, they give back so much. We create multiple benefits from each project: Instead of doing one thing, one project at a time, we green a neighborhood, reduce heat island effects, treat polluted water, and keep it to reuse when it’s needed.

Recycled water, stormwater capture, groundwater, and imported water all have to be a part of the resiliency equation. That means smart planning, and it means responsible funding to ensure that we can get there. But building infrastructure to capture and treat stormwater is expensive. And currently, there is no ongoing funding stream to pay for an integrated plan. We need a regional plan, and we need a responsible and renewable funding stream.

In the next couple of months, I’m going to introduce a motion to develop a countywide funding measure and program to help pay for these sorts of programs in neighborhoods throughout the county. The point of this is for us all to start to think together. Even if the county voted to tax themselves, or adopt a homeowners’ fee, it would not be enough. So much needs to be done, and it needs to be integrated.

It’s like when the railroads were being built from the east and from the west, and then connected by the golden spike: We have to all think together about recycling, reusing, and recharging. We have to do regional governance and integrated planning—otherwise we’re going to be stepping all over each other. That’s what our county of 10 million people is planning for the near future. It will be a giant move on the part of the county. The county is big, and it takes the lead on a lot of things, and I’m very grateful and happy to be part of that now. 

Robert Garcia: Let me give a few remarks from a mayor’s perspective—and from a coastal city that has all the challenges of climate change, as well as the additional challenge of being at the end of the Los Angeles River.

When I came into office a couple years ago, the challenge of water conservation and stormwater was immediately clear—because we were constantly being (gently) hit over the head by the governor. I applaud Jerry Brown for pushing the state, in these last couple years, to conserve more water. Leadership from the state, from the county, and from mayors is important in getting communities to conserve.

Our big challenge when it comes to stormwater is the LA River. In Long Beach, we deal with all the trash and stormwater that goes into the river from upstream and ends up spilling out along the coast. We’re 100 percent in on the restoration and revitalization of the river; we’re proud of Mayor Garcetti’s leadership on that in the state and the counties. What we want is to be partners.

We can put in stormwater-capture systems across the city of Long Beach all we want, and we do. We have incredible environmental policies in the city of Long Beach. We are constantly encouraging folks to do drought-resistant landscaping, conserve water during the rains, put in greywater systems, and make sure that our parks and infrastructure are capturing water. Those issues are front and center because all of you, and our leadership in California, are putting these issues front and center.

But if we’re not working with our partners upriver between Long Beach and Los Angeles—including some cities that may not have the resources we do—we’re still going to receive the same amount of trash and runoff going into the ocean. We’re working on projects to clean up the LA River. In partnership with the state, we’re building a massive new stormwater treatment plant at the end of the river to capture a lot of this debris and stormwater.

As part of the LA River project, we’re in year two of a three-year study with the Army Corps of Engineers looking at restoring the ecosystem of the entire coast. There’s a very large breakwater all along the coast of Long Beach, which is why we don’t have as much water circulation or coastal surf as other coastal cities. We’re hoping to reconfigure some of that breakwater to improve water quality, change how the LA River flows out into the coast, and restore the ecosystem. Long Beach is partners with all of you in this challenge around climate change and around the issues of water.

Matt Petersen: With President Trump’s actions, it’s clearer and clearer that cities in California and cities across the country, in red states and blue states, have to work together to lead the way on climate change. We’re going to do that.

When I was appointed to the mayor’s staff, we set about creating the first ever Sustainable City pLAn—a comprehensive vision for our city. Water is touched on in many chapters, including climate change, ecosystems, resiliency, and others. But Los Angeles was in our fourth year of extreme drought at that point, and the mayor decided we couldn’t wait to finish the plan before taking action on the drought. So on the basis of the research we’d been doing, we drafted Executive Order No. 5.

When we set that goal of reducing water use by 20 percent, some thought we were being overly ambitious. Well, right now we’re at 20 percent, and we anticipate that we’ll stay there.

We also aim to reduce our imported water by 50 percent by 2035. Los Angeles imports 80-90 percent of our water at any given time. Reducing that number is critical for the environment, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—because there’s a lot of embodied energy in importing water—and also in case of a seismic event that disrupts the California water system or the Colorado aqueduct.

Meeting that goal will require increased conservation; increased stormwater capture, cleanup, and potable reuse; building recycled water infrastructure; and cleaning up our San Fernando Aquifer. We’re setting about that hard work now. Within the city, we’ve also created the Mayor’s Water Cabinet—bringing together our Bureau of Sanitation, Department of Water and Power, Recreations and Parks Department, and all the key players in the city, to drive forward our focus on water use reduction and our overall goals codified in the Sustainable City pLAn.

Of course, we’ve also got to have regional collaboration. Working with the county has been critically important, and the investment that Supervisor Kuehl is working to create is going to be critical. Jeff Kightlinger and Debra Man’s work at the MWD—building the largest recycled water facility in the state—is going to be critically important. Our work at Hyperion and with other water districts in the region is going to be critically important.

We’re looking forward to our continued collaboration with everybody here at this table to create that local water future we need so much. 

Jeff Kightlinger: There are at least four major events coming in 2017 that are important to keep an eye on here in California, and it’s really going to be a “watershed year” here if we can manage to pull off these four issues.

MWD is looking at how we can play a bigger role in integrating the region’s water supply—a major issue for us as the region’s importer. Since the 1990s, our efforts have been focused on planning, subsidizing, and assisting building local resources. The next step is actually partnering on developing local projects.

In the next 60 days, our board will make a decision on our first ever local partnership: building a million-gallon-a-day water recycling plant with the LA County Sanitation Districts. That demonstration project will eventually lead to another major decision on a multibillion-dollar recycling plant, which will come up in the next 24 months. In the spring of 2017, Governor Brown’s decision will be teed up for him on the California Water Fix—the tunnel project to build a sustainable Delta system. It’s something California has wrestled with since the 1960s.

Coming up in the fall: The Colorado River has been in a 15-year drought. Arizona, California, and Nevada are going to work together on creating the first ever drought-sharing Lower Basin Plan. This is a monumental decision that will help the river get on a sustainable course throughout the drought and the long-term climate change impacts we can see coming.

We have negotiated a handshake deal, and are now working through the legal mechanisms of bringing that forward to the US Department of the Interior. Ryan Zinke, assuming he gets confirmed as Secretary, will have a role in that. That agreement will pave the way for a treaty amendment—called a “minute”—with the country of Mexico. We’re in the process of negotiating a cooperative 10-year plan for sharing, developing, and building Mexico’s water resources. They would exchange water with places like MWD, and we would give them hundreds of millions of dollars to update and modernize their water supply infrastructure.

We’ve been working on this issue for the last five years and have it teed up to be ready by December 2017. We hope the recent politics with Mexico don’t blow up our efforts. It’s important for people to support all these efforts, because in Southern California, we need them all. We’re going to need cooperation with Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Northern California. And we need to do our best here to integrate what we have.

“In the next couple of months, I’m going to introduce a motion to develop a countywide funding measure and program to help pay for these sorts of programs in neighborhoods throughout the county. The point of this is for us all to start to think together. Even if the county voted to tax themselves, or adopt a homeowners’ fee, it would not be enough. So much needs to be done, and it needs to be integrated.” - Sup. Sheila Kuehl