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Los Angeles County’s bold plan for storm water

Los Angeles County rainwater runoff canal. PINTEREST

LOS ANGELES — During the storms of 2017, Los Angeles lost over 100 billion gallons of rainwater, enough for 2.5 million families for one year. Now, county officials say they have a plan to capture, clean, and store runoff that could bring Los Angeles closer than it has ever been to being water self-sufficient.

Experts and reporters gathered at the Japanese American Cultural Center on March 9 to discuss a new strategy to strengthen Los Angeles’ water supply amidst the challenges of extreme weather and population growth.

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Bill for green infrastructure

Advocates hope to build support for green infrastructure designed to capture and store a largely untapped resource that could help quench the county’s constant demand for water – and provide multiple benefits for L.A.’s communities.

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“We get a lot of our water from outside of Los Angeles, from northern California, Colorado, and it is getting more and more expensive,” said Dr. J.R. DeShazo, chair of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Policy. “It’s getting less reliable, and the water quality from some of those external supplies is getting worse.”

Buying and importing water costs more than three times as much as it does to harvest it from local groundwater sources, DeShazo said. And only about a third of the county’s drinking supply comes from within L.A.

In addition, transporting water from distant vendors accounts for well over 10 percent of the county’s power consumption, according to Mark Pestrella, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works (DPW).

Economic, pollution problem

“When you look at what we are importing into L.A. County, it’s about 60 percent of our local supply,” Pestrella said during Friday’s panel discussion. “That’s a problem from an economic standpoint, and from a pollution standpoint.”

Billions of gallons of uncollected rainwater flow through local rivers and storm drains to the Pacific each year. The water sweeps up trash and contaminants that eventually pollute Southern California beaches, lakes and streams. There, and especially in low-income communities that might struggle to fund adequate drainage solutions, polluted water poses multiple public health risks, including exposure to pink eye and a variety of gastrointestinal diseases.

Green infrastructure projects aim to manage storm water at its source, capturing and cleaning it so that it can be added to the local water supply, according to Ariane Jong, a staff scientist with the Council for Watershed Health.

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The county is currently developing a plan, called the Safe, Clean Water Program (SCWP), which would fund construction of cisterns, rain gardens, and other infrastructure to collect and store as much as 100 billion additional gallons of rainwater per year. That’s enough water to meet the annual consumption of more than 613,000 four person households, or 20 percent of L.A.’s current demand.

Water independence

In addition to increasing water independence, advocates say investing in storm water infrastructure also means investing in increasing green space in L.A.’s concrete jungle, as the rainwater storage facilities are often located under and alongside parks, playgrounds and sports fields.

“Green” jobs represent another possible benefit. A new report by Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) says that a parcel tax which raises $300 million annually for green stormwater projects would generate more than 7,800 jobs in construction, maintenance and operations over the next 30 years.

Many of these jobs would be “career track” positions for workers without advanced degrees, according to Roxana Tynan, LAANE’s executive director.

“We aren’t creating jobs that will be a one-off, but will last for years to come,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who spoke at the media briefing. “There’s also an opportunity … in areas that, right now, deserve to get an infusion of dollars to create workforce training programs.”

Seeking input from residents

The county is currently seeking input from residents and businesses on the program, and hopes to have a parcel tax proposal before the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors by June or July of 2018, to place before voters on the November ballot.

If approved, the expansive undertaking would build on top of an existing network designed to capture and store groundwater. The initiative also seeks to enhance regional cooperation between the over 200 local governments and agencies who oversee water resources throughout the County.

In this past drought cycle, a number of California communities exhausted their groundwater reserves, becoming completely reliant on outside sources. Pestrella said it is unlikely for that scenario to occur on a large scale across L.A. However, because recurring drought is known to be impact of climate change, advocates say it is critical that L.A. invest in green stormwater infrastructure now.

“We’ve got to turn our green thumbs on, and make sure we are starting to think about where we are investing, what we are capturing, and what that means for conservation,” said Solis.

Angelenos can learn more about their water supply and storm water infrastructure by searching online for H2O4LA and Safe Clean Water Program LA.

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TAGS: L.A. County Department of Public Works (DPW), rainwater harvesting, Safe Clean Water Program (SCWP), storm water, UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Policy, water independence
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