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Climate and Environment

Stormwater Program Has Helped Fight The Drought, But There’s A Long Way To Go

Turtles perch on a pipe in the midst of the south lake at Earvin "Magic" Johnson Park.
Turtles perch on a pipe in the midst of the south lake at Earvin "Magic" Johnson Park, which captures stormwater to use for its irrigation.
(Mariana Dale
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L.A. County voters passed Measure W back in 2018. Since then, the tax on impermeable pavement helps fund stormwater capture projects across the region.

Now, more than four years later, a new report finds that the Safe Clean Water Program — which is made up of multiple committees that review and approve funding for projects — has helped significantly in:

  • Clearing a backlog of city and county projects to improve local water quality and infrastructure
  • Distributing more than $1 billion to primarily fund such projects

The report is from environmental non-profit L.A. Waterkeeper.

More water is being captured, but more tracking is needed

New projects funded by the tax are expected to help the county increase its ability to capture stormwater by about 50,000 acre-feet every year (depending on the weather of course), on top of the average of about 250,000 acre-feet it currently captures. That adds up to enough water to serve more than 1 million people for a year.

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But the math to count those water supply benefits needs some work, according to the report.

“There is uncertainty as to whether these claimed benefits will be fully achieved,” the report states. “There is no methodology…to easily determine how different projects may interact with one another or ensure that captured water is not double counted.”

What's In An Acre-Foot?
  • One acre-foot is about the amount of water it would take to fill a football field a foot deep. The city of L.A. uses about 500,000 acre-feet of water every year. 

So far these projects have been relatively small in scale, said Mark Gold, a UCLA professor and long-time water expert who now works on water issues with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He peer-reviewed the report by L.A. Waterkeeper.

“All the projects we've really been talking about have been small- to- medium size in scale, not sort of the large projects that are really gonna make a dent on water supply,” Gold said. “Setting water supply metrics and sending them on an annual basis so we can see how well we're doing is a way to create a culture of accountability.”

An example of a large-scale project includes Tujunga Spreading Grounds near Pacoima, which helps water from the L.A. River watershed percolate into a large groundwater basin. The Dominguez Gap wetlands, below, are another example.

Dominguez Gap Wetlands body of water surrounded by green plant life
The engineered Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach filters stormwater and runoff from the Los Angeles River. Then the water is siphoned under the river to a spreading ground to the west.
(Sharon McNary
LAist )

Community-driven projects lag

The program also faces challenges in funding projects that can benefit communities in multiple ways outside of just water supply.

“What we're not seeing is new green space, new parks, new greening of schools,” said Bruce Reznik, the executive director of L.A. Waterkeeper who also chairs a program committee that approves projects for funding.

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Two primary goals of the program are removing impermeable pavement and adding new green space. They are both necessary not only to bolstering local water supply, but also adapting to increasingly extreme heat, which most affects communities that have sparse tree cover and fewer parks. Those communities are most often lower-income and home to people of color – a legacy of racist zoning policies of the past.

Some of the main findings of the report by L.A. Waterkeeper include:

  • Only six of the 101 funded projects will create new parks, green space or a green school.  Most funded projects are rehabilitating existing parks with stormwater features.
  • Only 30 acres out of the more than half-a-million acres of pavement in L.A. have been removed so far, with 27.5 acres actually added to that concrete jungle. The report states a metric goal for removing pavement is needed. 

Why not more for greening asphalt-heavy schools?

Reznik said a big missed opportunity so far is funding greening efforts at schools. The L.A. Unified School District applied for 10 projects to be funded through the Safe Clean Water Program, but they weren’t approved.

Reznik said some of LAUSD’s primary concerns include worries about liability for digging up grounds that may end up needing treatment for contamination.

“Schools are such a great opportunity for greening our communities,” Reznik said.

Gold pointed out that the county and school district have worked for more than a decade to smooth the process for embarking on these types of projects, and it’s time they break ground.

“What we've seen is when the NGOs are sort of leading the effort in collaboration with the school districts, it works,” said Gold. “When it's the school district alone, not so much.”

Reznik pointed to the recent discussions from new LAUSD superintended Alberto Carvalho to up efforts to remove asphalt and “green” more schools.

“Hopefully this is a time we can finally overcome what I agree has been a decade-or-more-long issue,” Reznik said.

L.A. County is expected to complete its own audit of the program later this year. Meanwhile, the program’s many committees plan to discuss changes needed in coming years to expand the impact.

You can read the full report here and a summary here.

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