Stormwater Quality In L.A. – Breaking Through Fear Itself – By Maria Mehranian & Adán Ortega
Bans against ex-parte discussions with regulators. Potential third-party lawsuits. Threatened court challenges against enforcement authority of regulators. The City of Los Angeles. The County of Los Angeles. A $20 billion stormwater infrastructure compliance price-tag. Looming municipal bankruptcies. For insiders representing cities, environmental groups, and regulators, these are just some of the fears in the quest to clean-up stormwater in the Los Angeles region. Recently, the new Board Chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Irma Muñoz, joined with municipal leaders in the San Gabriel Valley during a meeting on the week of August 15, 2016, designed to establish a platform for reason through frank dialogue. By meeting face to face, city leaders from South Pasadena, Glendora, Claremont and other cities took the first step by breaking through the fear of misunderstood bans against meetings with regulators known as ex-parte discussions.
In the lead-up to establishment of the municipal stormwater permit (MS4) that was approved by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (“The Regional Board”) in 2012, earlier leaders took similar steps that made approval of the MS4 permit provisions possible. At that time, officials from the City of Monrovia led cities into a productive dialogue with regulators. This was followed by officials from Signal Hill who helped pave the early steps toward compliance by organizing another group of cities.
The elephant in the room facing Muñoz and the cities remains the lack of funding to meet ambitious goals to comply with standards set in the MS4 as they begin taking effect in 2017. Some coastal environmental groups continue waving the sword of lawsuits because they feel the MS4 measures are too lax. And, some cities are saying that they will not comply with the MS4 permit because they allege that the Regional Board lacks enforcement authority. But time has demonstrated that the majority of cities and other environmental groups want to make progress in cleaning up the LA Region’s stormwater.
The frank truth is despite all the talk of “multiple benefits” of cleaning stormwater, most of the benefits cited can’t be monetized by cities that face fines if pollution limits are exceeded. “Avoided costs,” “more green space” and “health benefits” are not subject to taxes and fees that can be invested in infrastructure to clean stormwater – that rarely falls in the region in the first place. Also, much of the money available through existing state bonds can not be used for compliance purposes by cities. Finally, ongoing negotiations for new county and state bond measures are perceived as being dominated by the City and the County of Los Angeles, for projects that make sense at cost scales that are unaffordable for most smaller cities.
Will others join Muñoz and some of the San Gabriel cities in planning a way out of the morass? Perhaps the City and County of Los Angeles can shed the image of dominance if they are instead positioned as “early adopters” that can drive costs down for the smaller cities. This can be done if their plans include modular technologies and programs that can be scaled down to suit the needs of smaller cities. As economies of scale are realized through early adopters, smaller cities can be given more flexible schedules to comply with the MS4 permit.
Perhaps environmental and community groups that are sensitive to smaller city needs, including environmental health, can be given a meaningful place at the negotiating table which is traditionally dominated by richer coastal and Northern California environmental groups. Water suppliers also deserve a meaningful place at the table given that the costs of cleaning stormwater, based upon the assumption that it can be stored as a water supply source, is being shifted to them in some proposals. These are just a few ideas but it’s time to breakthrough the fears and get to work.
Adán Ortega is President of OSG, Ortega Strategies Group, and a former executive with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and former member of the California Water Commission