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The Story of O

IF YOU WANT A LITTLE INSIGHT into why it takes so long for a city to address the obvious problem of stopping the flow of garbage, fertilizer and feces through its storm drains into the ocean, you have only to spend 15 minutes at a meeting of the Proposition O Citizens Oversight Advisory Committee. Last week, on a hot day just after lunch time, about 30 people squeezed into a stifling conference room on the 12th floor of Los Angeles City Hall East to discuss the merits of various proposals. Nine of the people belonged to the committee; another dozen had come to ask for a piece of the half-billion-dollar bond Prop. O created for water-quality improvement projects. And nowhere in the airless room was there much relief from the fact that, when it really gets down to quantifiable benefits, the task of greening a city is not for the attention deficient.

Back in 2004, residents of Los Angeles approved Prop. O, with 76 percent of the vote. That it wasn’t a high-turnout election didn’t matter: On that same Tuesday, the people also went to the polls to reject a sales-tax hike to put more police on the street. Prop. O’s success at the polls has been widely viewed as evidence that Los Angeles, which lags far behind cities like Chicago, Portland and San Francisco in its environmental efforts, actually does have a green soul. “It showed that the people of Los Angeles really care about water quality,” says David Nahai, chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. “Five hundred million dollars is not chump change.”

But translating community approval into actual results, some say, has been, if not difficult, at least not straightforward. O was presented to the public not simply as a way for the city to live up to the Clean Water Act by cleaning up the urban runoff that pollutes the ocean, but as a way to improve the livability of the city in general: By creating more green space, for instance, which would absorb more water while providing recreational benefits. But almost right away, environmental groups began to worry that Prop. O money could end up funding pet park projects that provided no water-quality benefits at all — projects like an artificial-turf baseball field in Wilmington. “It was politically popular,” says Heal the Bay executive director Mark Gold. “No one’s going to say Los Angeles doesn’t need more ball fields. But it’s not a new ball field. It’s not diverting water from anywhere. So is it appropriate that Prop. O funds pay for it?” Instead of approving the first round of projects, the oversight committee sends the most promising of the first round of applicants back to produce “concept reports” at $30,000 each. “We ended up not voting on projects, but voting on whether it goes to a concept report,” he says.

Gold calls himself the “token environmental scientist” on the Prop. O committee, which examines proposals in advance of the City Council, and also includes Mary Nichols, currently of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment, and the regional water board’s Francine Diamond. “I’ve been on the short end of 8-1, 7-2 type votes,” he told me over the phone. And at last week’s meeting, he clearly had a sense of purpose: “What do you recharge on-site? What are you doing on-site?” he demanded of an applicant pitching a proposal to convert a closed Sun Valley landfill into a recreational field named for Cesar Chavez. “If we don’t know the quantifiable benefits, we don’t know whether we’re getting the result for the money.”

“It’s a range,” said the applicant.

Gold persisted. “We need to know pollutant loads, the drainage area and the water-quality benefits of this project,” he said. By this time, most of the faces in the room had gone blank; one committee member, clutching a pen in both hands, seemed to be nodding off. When the man offered a monthly estimate, Gold did some quick calculations and handed back a total. Then he asked the applicant to flesh out his report with some actual numbers and come back in two weeks.

Less than a week later, however, the City Council’s budget committee reviewed the Cesar Chavez proposal and signed off on it without the oversight committee’s approval.

Gold was dismayed. “I’m concerned,” he said, “that this will set a bad precedent for future funding decisions.”

“MARK IS THE WATER-QUALITY CONSCIENCE on our committee,” says Nichols, “and he has the most technical expertise. Other people know how projects get built and how cities work, and can look at benefits even if they may not be quantifiable. But Mark knows his business.”

Gold also knows what can happen, he says, if he and other environmentalists aren’t vigilant about making sure that Prop. O’s relatively small amount of money actually goes toward reducing pollution. Five hundred million dollars seems like a lot of money until you consider that Los Angeles storm drains cover 51 miles that, on a dry summer day, transport 24 million gallons of runoff into Santa Monica Bay. The Cesar Chavez Recreational Complex project needs $2 million of Prop. O money, meaning that 250 projects like it will drain the fund. And while no one expects that Prop. O money alone can clean up L.A.’s beaches, the projects that come of it need to prove that efforts to spread and sink storm water in a public park, or install permeable pavement in a parking lot, actually yield some water-quality benefits.

“Especially in these early stages,” says Nichols, “we want to see projects done where there’s a demonstration of feasibility, because if it works you can come up with other sources of funding for other projects.” A proposal to install porous pavement in the Los Angeles Zoo’s parking lot, for instance, “didn’t look like a very good project when they came in with it,” says Nichols. “But they came back with a redesign and explained what they were doing with swales and permeability, and also had a plan to do an educational display about what they were doing and why they were doing it. It’s such a visible location, with so many people going through it, that it could be a great way of teaching people about runoff and what the solutions are.”

Gold remains skeptical. “It’s a $13 million project,” he says. “I can’t see why I would support it for that kind of money. But I think I was the only person in the room who opposed it.”

Whether the public gets educated about urban runoff or not, however, by law, Los Angeles, like other Southern California cities, has only until 2012 to meet a series of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called “Total Maximum Daily Loads,” or TMDLs — a public-health standard for certain pollutants and bacteria, such as toxic metals and bacteria. “Think of it as a pollution budget,” explains the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water-quality expert, David Beckman. “It’s a map to success that you can document in water quality.” And even an ideal proposal, like the million-dollar project to capture runoff from an L.A. River–adjacent street, which North East Trees’ Jason Pelletier presented to the committee last week, can only make a microscopic dent in that problem. Then again, the proposal, documented at a level of detail that had to thrill Gold, only requested that a third of its funding come from Prop. O.

“It’s the first concept report we’ve had that contains true water-quality information,” Gold enthused at the meeting. “It’s a great project.”

“Well, we had the advantage of sampling the runoff from the storms last winter,” Pelletier confirmed. Eyes in the room glazed over again, sleepy chins drifted toward the ground. But everyone in the room, alert or not, had the sense that something good had happened in that moment. They just may not have known what.


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