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The Great Wet Hope

EVERYBODY LOVES MEASURE O. Environ- mentalists have hailed it as a monumental step toward healing L.A.’s commerce-battled ecology; local boosters promote it as the solution to lost tourist dollars because of dirty beaches and poisonous surf; labor groups, medical professionals and business associations all show up on the measure’s long list of endorsements. According to one local activist, the measure, which allocates $500 million in bond money for projects to redirect the city’s storm water from concrete drains to parks and greenbelts, is so irresistible even the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation, which naturally opposes anything public works–minded, has offered to endorse the initiative — for $25,000.

Unfortunately, the distracting buzz of presidential-election-year politics has some O supporters worried the measure won’t secure the two-thirds majority vote it needs to pass. Because the original clean-water initiative put forth by the Los Angeles City Council last July looked to some like a potential “pork-fest,” O wasn’t ready for a full-on PR campaign until early August, after its language had been combed through and refined by environmental groups, the City Council members themselves and Ronald Deaton, the city’s chief legislative analyst. The concern, says Deaton, “was that we’d get down to building a park that some elected official wanted built with no water benefit or a negligible water benefit, or that the water thing would be used as an excuse — for instance, you could use it to build a playground as long as you built a cistern underneath it.” The current text, says Deaton, stipulates a citizens’ oversight committee and regular audits by the city controller to make sure the money goes to projects specifically designed to end L.A.’s longstanding tradition of pouring polluted storm water into the ocean.

“We spent the summer going over the language until we nailed it down,” says David Beckman, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “We wanted to make sure that money’s well spent.”

Now it’s hard for anyone to say no to O. The measure has no official opposition, and even the Los Angeles Times, which last August ran an anti-O editorial griping that Los Angeles shouldn’t pay for the reckless dumping of Malibu homeowners, published an enthusiastic endorsement of the measure last weekend. Beckman believes the August editorial was “right on the mark,” but now thinks the new language in the measure, which he helped craft, addresses most of the Times’ original complaint. “As for the issue about other cities,” he says, “there’s always a free-rider problem in any situation, but what Los Angeles is doing here is getting ahead of the curve. It’s not waiting for enforcement actions from the EPA. If Malibu doesn’t comply as well in some way, it won’t be let off the hook.”

Nor will Los Angeles if Measure O fails on November 2 as the federal Clean Water Act requires the city to comply with some 60 mandates to reduce pollution from runoff. According to a 1996 EPA inventory of watersheds and sources, 40 percent of the nation’s water bodies fall short of EPA standards for water quality, and a leading source of the pollution comes from storm water pouring down concrete culverts flushing garbage, fertilizer, motor oil, feces and countless other foreign substances into rivers, lakes and estuaries. In an eight-month period across the U.S., 10.9 million gallons of oil — the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill — pours off city streets into the oceans.

The consequences of that pollution have been known anecdotally for decades, but in 1999 the NRDC, along with Heal the Bay and Santa Monica Baykeeper, brought a lawsuit before the U.S. EPA demanding that the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board and the EPA be held accountable for failing to enforce the “total maximum daily loads,” or TMDLs, mandated by the Clean Water Act in 1977, for more certain contaminants impairing the Santa Monica Bay. “TMDL quantified what everybody who’s been aware of the problem knew but didn’t understand the ramifications of,” says Beckman. “We knew that people were getting sick after swimming; we knew the marine ecosystem was being affected, but we weren’t able to measure exactly how much the city had to reduce its discharges to make the water safe and clean.

“There’s nothing like having a quantifiable, legal limit for the city to be able to meet its performance goals,” says Beckman. “It’s like paying your bills and finding out at the end of the month you don’t have any money.” And as much as the Bush administration has hobbled its own EPA by filling it with industry-friendly staff, the 1999 lawsuit put the federal government on a judicial schedule, according to Beckman. “No matter its own personal preferences, the Bush administration is not free of the order of a federal court. The EPA has agreed to comply with a consent degree. We would oppose very strenuously if they didn’t.”

Orange County has its own plan pending to address storm-water pollution with a $50 property-owners’ fee, to be decided by mail-in ballots in June 2005, but its proposal is nowhere near as visionary as Measure O, which goes beyond the simple catch-basin and storm-drain diversion system proposed by the Orange County Sanitation District and acknowledges that there are benefits to cleaning up pollution beyond making the surf safe for winter-storm swimming, as well as obvious payoffs in a drought-prone climate to reclaiming the water that falls from the sky. If O passes, “The days of looking at runoff as a nuisance and flooding issue are over,” says Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay. “O encourages looking at storm water as a resource, not something to just get rid of as soon as possible by pouring it down concrete pipes into our oceans and onto our beaches filled with pollutants.”

 

ONE OF THE BEST WAYS to handle storm water is to collect it in porous swales — areas sunk lower than the surrounding landscape — and allow it to percolate back into the groundwater table. Not only does the soil act as a natural filtration system, but the storm water itself supports vegetation and green space. The $500 million O allocates — which roughly translates into $35 to $50 per $350,000 home — could fund the kind of modern water-reclamation and flood-control projects that make a city more livable, says Gold.

“What comes out of this should be an incentive for developers to build something better than one concrete box next to the other, lot line to lot line.” He cites Pan-Pacific Park in West Hollywood as an example of a storm-water-friendly landscape, with its sunken ball fields suitable for recreation 90 percent of the year that turn into storm-water swales in the rainy season. A project is already under way to capture and reclaim the rainwater that falls on a 4.4-square-mile segment of Sun Valley, a community built without storm drains where heavy flooding clogs intersections nearly every winter. Spearheaded by TreePeople with significant support from the county of Los Angeles, the Sun Valley Watershed Project has secured nearly half the $100 million required to complete it. Funds from O could provide the rest.

At a recent gathering in Marin County of the Bioneers, a conservation group, ecologist Brock Dolman, director of the Watershed Advocacy Training, Education and Research Institute at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, showed slides of other projects around the country designed to mitigate storm water pollution, including a beach park in Santa Barbara, Arroyo Burro, ringed with “bioswales,” where storm-water feeds native plants that in turn create bird habitat; and Village Homes in Davis, a planned community completed in 1981 with a natural drainage network of creek beds, swales and ponds that absorb rainwater. If such projects seem expensive up-front, Dolman argues that in the final analysis, multibenefit water systems save money in the long run. When a major flood hit Davis in the 1980s, Village Homes’ drainage system not only absorbed its own runoff but handled backed-up storm-drain systems from neighboring communities as well. “Spread it, slow it, sink it,” advised Dolman on storm-water management. It could be the motto of O’s proponents, who have planned a series of television commercials and billboards to educate the public about O in the two weeks before the election — which, serendipitously, also brought the first of the season’s hard rains and consequent runoff.

“Two-thirds is always a substantial measure on any issue,” says NRDC’s Beckman. “But Californians overwhelmingly support these kinds of things. When people hear about it, they support it. The task is getting it out there.”


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