CA Water Update – The November 2018 Ballot

Los Angeles County Measure W – The Safe, Clean Water Act
The Los Angeles County Flood Control District, with the support of the LA County Board of Supervisors (4-1 vote), put Measure W on the November 2018 ballot to create a special tax for parcels located in the District to pay for projects, infrastructure, and programs to capture, treat, and recycle rainwater.  If passed, this Measure would raise an estimated $300 million per year based on a tax rate of 2.5 cents per square foot of “impermeable area” (i.e. paved or built-on surfaces that prevent “stormwater and urban runoff from entering the earth,” like concrete patios and driveways).  That comes to about $83 a year for the average single-family homeowner.  Some exemptions will be made available for properties owned by “qualifying low-income seniors,” government-owned parcels, and those owned by nonprofits.
The Measure’s goals are to stop the flow of water-borne toxins and other pollutants into the ocean and to develop alternative water supplies.  Why now?  The Federal Clean Water Act requires (unfunded mandate) L.A. County’s 88 cities to clean up their stormwater and the deadline to meet those requirements nears, the region is at risk of being fined potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state penalties.
In a recent L.A. Times Editorial endorsing Measure W they did a great job of highlighting the poor planning that brought us to this point — “Water and sanitation agencies can’t bill their customers for cleaning stormwater, even though state and federal agencies can penalize cities for not doing it.  There are no stormwater ratepayers who deliver a steady stream of revenue. As a result, cities can’t sell bonds to build stormwater projects the way that water and sewer utilities can for their missions.  Cities and regional agencies already have detailed plans for projects to clean up stormwater, but they can’t actually build anything because they have no funding source.  Measure W would provide the source.  At the same time, it would give water and sanitation agencies incentives to design projects in tandem, to get multiple benefits from the same tax dollars.”
There are a few issues of concern regarding this Measure if it does pass — the tax has no sunset date and it doesn’t outline specific projects that the money would go toward or any project costs.  Like any other Measure, strong management and accountability will be needed.  The price tag is enormous – one analysis put the stormwater capture price tag for cities in L.A. County at $120 billion.  
The complexity of California’s and L.A.’s water management system and the political dynamics that surround it make it a very hard issue to summarize.  In a piece today by Jay Lund in CALmatters Jay does a great job of helping explain the issue from a high level:
“Governors control, if anyone does, the major state regulatory, water delivery project, and planning bureaucracies, with staffs of thousands and budgets of billions. Governors are involved in crafting, passing, and implementing water legislation. And governors react to, bring, and defend court actions regarding water.  This is no easy task. Water policy and management are highly decentralized and complex across the state, local, and federal levels. A governor’s interest and actions are often needed to bring these diverse decision-makers and stakeholders together.”
The voters also have a say in the matter.  According to CA’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, since 2000, voters have approved about $31 billion in general obligation bonds for water and environmental projects.  As of June, about one-third was still available, including $4 billion that was in Proposition 68, approved by voters in June and put together by the Legislature after public hearings.  CA’s voters also approved in November 2014 a Bond Measure that appropriates $7.195 billion for numerous projects, such as storage, nurturing watersheds, clean drinking water, groundwater storage, etc.  Mayor Garcetti stated that he wanted to see these bond dollars go toward ground water cleanup, recycling and river restoration funds.  The San Fernando Valley aquifer needs between $600 to $900 million to clean up chromium and other pollutants.  The basin accounts for more then 80 percent of the City’s local water rights, but about half of its wells are unusable.
In a recent Planning Report article CA State Senator Robert Hertzberg gave an assessment on L.A.’s efforts aligned with this issue:  “L.A. uses 500,000 acre-feet of water annually.  We engage in these major processes of engineering and environmental review—and then after we bring in the water, instead of treating it as a resource, we treat it as waste.  There are some small projects from DWP and the sanitation districts that are on the right track—but at the same time, they’re still building $700-million pipes to dump more water in the ocean…Stormwater capture is an unbelievably important opportunity to recharge our groundwater basins…If we cleaned it up and reused it, we would have a free source of water.  Rather than spending $1,100 per acre-foot of water that we pump into the region from outside, we could use that money to build infrastructure and recharge our groundwater basins…The San Gabriel Valley is brilliant at capturing and recycling water. There are years when they don’t import any water whatsoever; it’s unbelievable. Orange County, too, is the platinum standard for recycled water. We in the San Fernando Valley, on the other hand, are behind the times. We’re yesterday.  It’s frustrating: The city has been talking about it for as long as I’ve been in government, and they’re still talking about it. That’s enough—it’s time to roll. If it were up to me, I’d shut off every nickel coming to them until they fixed it, and I’d supplement their efforts to do so.”
Another Bond Measure is on the November Ballot – Proposition 3.  It would authorize general obligation bonds that would be repaid out of the state’s general fund.  If all the bonds are sold, it would take an average of $430 million a year for 40 years to pay them off. Gov. Jerry Brown, who has made it a priority to reduce the state’s debt and put money into reserves to prepare for the next recession, is staying neutral on this measure.  To date multiple newspaper editorial boards throughout CA have come out against this measure.  Matthew Klink does a good job of summarizing the editorial board stances on all the November Ballot Measures, including Proposition 3
Final word.
CA’s growing population needs a clean and reliable source of water for years to come.  It should be unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of rural residents in parts of California still have unsafe drinking water supplies as we vote to raise more money for multiple water sustainable solutions.  For L.A. the answer remains focused on advancing solutions that align with Waster Water Treatment, Recycling, Reclaimed Water and the Conservation of Water.  These efforts currently account for less than 1 percent of total water usage in the United States and advances in water technology – reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection and oxidation are all opportunities for L.A. to reuse polluted water for many different purposes.
We also need to do a much better job at capturing stormwater runoff to help recharge our groundwater supplies or for direct use for non-potable applications.  Approximately two -thirds of the reuse potential is in coastal areas where wastewater is discharged into the oceans or into streams that drain into the ocean.  L.A. has 400 locations that chronically flood and we need more than $120 billion in investment. 
If you would like to learn more about the City of L.A.’s efforts, they are part of the Urban Water Management Planning Act, which the City is required to adopt every five years to comply with California’s Urban Water Management Planning Act (Act).