Red tape ensnares L.A.’s plan to capture more storm water

After a series of storms drenched the region with a record 9.4 inches of rain in December, the Los Angeles River became a roiling, violent torrent in its concrete channel, before finally spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

The storms transported an estimated 29.5 billion gallons of fresh water into Long Beach Harbor — 62% more water than the nation’s largest desalination plant in San Diego produces in an entire year. It was enough to supply as many as 181,000 families annually.

In 2018, L.A. County voters said they wanted to stop squandering this resource when they approved a massive tax aimed at two main objectives: cleaning up storm water that contaminates the nearby coast and capturing more of it before it reaches the ocean. As prolonged droughts threaten supplies from distance sources, the vote reflected a recognition that every drop of local water is valuable and should not be wasted.

Yet even after selling voters on the urgent need to build storm water projects, the county has disbursed only $95.5 million for projects out of $556 million collected, and actual construction has lagged well behind the money disbursed, a Times review has found. County officials say it could take half a century to complete the work, even though the county needs additional water supplies now, as droughts intensify with climate change.

Hardly an exception, Measure W is emblematic of how U.S. infrastructure projects typically are slow to deliver public benefits even when money is available. Whether they are highways, bridges, high-speed rail or other critical infrastructure, they are often dogged by constraints so common that they are widely accepted as normal.

In the case of Measure W, the county didn’t outline specific projects that would be financed, instead leaving those decisions to a bureaucratic process that has been slow to put shovels in the ground. Opponents of the measure complained about that lack of specificity in 2018, and now even supporters are frustrated.

“I wish the whole process could move quicker,” said Carl Blum, a retired engineer with the L.A. County Department of Public Works who sits on a Measure W steering committee that gives preliminary approval to projects. “We are not Elon Musk, where he gets an idea and two years later he is doing it.”

Environmentalist Bruce Reznik, whose group Los Angeles Waterkeeper filed lawsuits that pressured the county to adopt Measure W, is supportive but also sees room for improvement. Reznik says storm runoff is the leading source of pollution to local waterways, dumping 100 million gallons into rivers and coastal waterways even on dry days, with impacts on wildlife, marine quality and human health.

“It is going well, but it could be doing better,” said Reznik, whose influence now includes chairing the Measure W scoring committee. “It is the county. Everything is slow.”

“It is expensive and complicated,” added Mike Lewis, a former county staffer who now represents the construction industry. “Part of the problem is that we don’t have a plan and we are saying to voters give us the money and we will figure it out later. There hasn’t been a whole lot built.”

Public Works Director Mark Pestrella said the program is moving ahead and has a goal of ultimately capturing 300,000 acre-feet of water annually — 98 billion gallons — an amount equal to what the county system now captures, imports and recycles for groundwater replenishment. But it will take the next 30 to 50 years to build out the system, he said, and larger projects will likely take more time to get going.

“People who are frustrated are seeing the planning stages,” Pestrella said. “What I see is a tremendous amount of construction coming.

“It is tough to tell people to hang on. The voters want to see what we are doing with the money,” he said. “Well, we are planning.”

To date, much of the county activity has involved feasibility studies, project evaluation and design work. The county recently issued a solicitation for the help of consultants, which could ultimately cost $100 million, according to county documents.

In September, the county Board of Supervisors approved 79 projects in nine watershed areas and 48 technical or scientific studies. The Times analysis of those projects shows that many of them are modest efforts and heavily weighted to water quality. Storm capture projects appear to be a low priority.

Under Measure W, the county keeps 60% of the tax money raised annually to pay for the planned infrastructure it supervises and overall administration. The county’s 88 cities get the remaining 40% and have discretion over their projects. Some, such as Irwindale, are using some tax dollars to sweep their streets or improve the service, for example.

Reasons abound on why public agencies, in California and elsewhere, are often slow to launch projects. As a fraction of the economy, infrastructure spending has shrunk, giving local agencies less experience. Agencies have less internal technical talent, making them more reliant on outside consultants for support. To comply with environmental and contracting regulations, agencies must prepare voluminous reports that can withstand legal challenges.

Measure W also shows how power in public projects has shifted away from such dictatorial bureaucrats as Los Angeles water czar William Mulholland and New York City’s Robert Moses, who each held enormous clout for decades and ran roughshod over anybody in their way. Now there are many chefs in the kitchen. While it increases outreach to communities and reduces abusive impacts, it also means a slow bureaucratic process.

In this modern paradigm, Measure W, dubbed the Safe, Clean Water Program, operates through a series of appointed panels: a scoring committee that rates the projects; nine watershed steering committees that give preliminary approval; and an oversight committee that reviews the proposals, while advocacy groups influence what gets priority. Then, the proposed projects go to the county public works and the Board of Supervisors for review, approval and funding.

Water experts say Measure W is par for the course in a state with diffuse authority.

“This is California, where doing anything is impossible but we have somehow managed to do it,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. “We have some long processes for getting projects approved. The result is higher costs and a delay of benefits.”

Measure W imposes a tax on the square footage of impervious surfaces of privately owned structures. The owner of an average single-family residence pays about $83 a year for the program, which will operate “in perpetuity,” according to the law.

The county promoted the measure as a way to capture some of the 100 billion gallons of water that surges from county rivers into the Pacific Ocean each year, while reducing such contaminants as zinc, copper, phosphates and fecal matter. It also promised projects to improve parks and reduce urban heating.

The projects typically use swales, cisterns and dry wells, allowing water to penetrate the ground where it is naturally cleansed. But the ballot measure included no specific estimate of how much water would be impounded or how much beach quality would improve.

There were worries in 2019 that the program could bog down. Engineer Dave Sorem, a trustee of a labor and construction industry coalition, Rebuild SoCal Partnership, and a member of the scoring committee, warned supervisors of “an inertia to get the process going.”

With climate change expected to increasingly jeopardize imports of water from the Colorado River, the northern Sierra Nevada and the Owens Valley, water officials say there is no time to waste.

“The urgency is now,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the wholesaler of water across the region. “We cannot do it at the normal pace.”

About half of the water consumed across the Los Angeles metropolitan area is captured locally or recycled. MWD has set a goal to boost local sourcing to 65% and has co-funded two Measure W projects with $13 million.

Yet whatever voters thought, new water resources are not the main focus of the Measure W process.

“The overwhelming reason these projects are being pursued is water quality compliance,” said Tony Zampiello, the water master of the main San Gabriel River Basin. He is the executive director of a court-appointed organization enforcing decades-old judgments that allocates water to 192 rights holders.

If the tax helps percolate small amounts of water into the soil here and there, it is unlikely to give organizations or individuals a new legal right for water, he said.

Across the region, jurisdictions have seen varying success in capturing river runoff.

An estimated 90% of the San Gabriel River is captured and put in spreading grounds that replenishes aquifers, thanks to porous gravel and sand layers under the basin.

The Los Angeles River is directly opposite, losing an estimated 90% of its flow to the Pacific, owing to impervious conditions and urban density.

The Santa Ana River, the largest of the three, flows through San Bernardino and Riverside counties, before entering the Army Corps of Engineers’ Prado Dam, where the water becomes the possession of the Orange County Water District.

Orange County is considered among the better local operators with a robust recycling program that by next year will reuse 100% of wastewater that is not contaminated with brine. Along with Santa Ana River capture, local supplies provide 77% of the district’s water. It has no special tax for the purpose, has wholesale rates about half of MWDs and is largely compliant with state storm water quality standards.

“We don’t have the same water quality issues as Los Angeles County,” said Tri Ta, the district board’s second vice president.

When water capture is included in Measure W projects, it often comes with a high price tag. Many of them do not recover their construction costs for 20 years and some stretch out to more than 100 years, if the water is valued at the MWD wholesale rate, according to The Times analysis.

The Times examined 15 of the 79 approved projects and found that 10 would cost more to build than the expected future value of the water they would capture, based on a “net present value” methodology that allows future benefits to be compared to current costs.

Lund, the UC Davis expert, said the environmental benefits are critical for the program to make sense. “They are expensive projects for the water supply benefit. You have to have these other benefits to make the deal.”

Although small projects now dominate the program, one mega-concept that has long been kicked around involves a nine-mile, 40-foot diameter tunnel on the L.A. River that would divert water from the Glendale Narrows, where flooding is a serious risk, to rejoin the river south of downtown.

Such a tunnel could close and repeatedly fill in normal rain events to provide an average annual 30,000 acre-feet of water, said Mark Hanna, an engineering consultant who is assisting with the Los Angeles River master plan, where the concept is cited. The estimated cost is $2.5 billion.

Such an ambitious project would have to gain broad consensus among many powerful players: County public works, sanitation districts, water masters, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a number of state agencies.

“Southern California has a very complex bureaucracy,” said Joseph Schofer, a civil engineer at Northwestern University, who founded a podcast called “The Infrastructure Show.” “When you put that many players in a game like this, you have a clash of cultures. … In a complex project if you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it may turn out all right, but it will take a lot more time.”

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