You Have to Vote No On the County’s Stormwater Tax, Here’s Why

GUEST PERSPECTIVE--The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed placing on the November ballot the Safe, Clean Water Program stormwater SW tax.  The SW tax is not ready for consideration.  

The overarching purpose of the stormwater SW tax is to fund watershed projects that infiltrate stormwater runoff – a requirement of the Los Angeles County stormwater permit that was adopted by the Los Angeles Regional Water Board in late 2012. Such projects typically include green streets and municipal parks retrofitted to detain and infiltrate runoff for underground storage.  These projects are expected to produce two benefits.  First, to enlarge groundwater supplies as a hedge against future droughts.  Storing runoff in underground aquifers can be pumped-out later for potable water use.  Second, to divert runoff away from water bodies (rivers, lakes, beach waters) that would otherwise contain pollutants potentially harmful to aquatic life.  This expectation is likely to fall short of reality.

If passed, the SW tax is expected to generate $300 million annually county-wide. The county estimated the cost to implement watershed infiltration projects to be $1 billion annually.  That leaves a $700 million shortfall that can only be made-up two ways.  First, by compelling cities to dip into their general funds and reducing critical programs and services.  Secondly, by adopting a stormwater fee enabled under Senate Bill 231, which authorizes local government – the County and cities – to adopt a parcel fee without voter approval.  This is because the bill places stormwater under the same category as sewer water, which is exempt from voter approval requirements. 

According to a report prepared by the Governor’s Auditor General, the LA board, along with others, failed to consider costs associated with watershed management plan implementation.   It also failed to consider previous costs local governments incurred in meeting other stormwater permit requirements.  The county estimates that the City of Glendora will be required to shell-out $233,000,000 over 20 years for an annual average of about $11.7 million.  Glendora’s recent budget, which includes reserves, is a little over $42 million.  Its stormwater-related costs amount to a little over 27% of its budget.  Even more striking are the stormwater compliance costs for the tiny City of Lomita (less than 2 square miles in area).  The county estimates that it will need to spend $10 million per year over 5 years.  Lomita’s budget, including reserves, is $13.8 million. 

However, the SW tax may not be necessary for legal reasons.  The City of Gardena, supported by 20 cities in the county, filed a law suit challenging the LA board’s stormwater permit.  It is expecting a favorable decision in the next few weeks.  Should Gardena win, the stormwater permit, along with the requisite watershed infiltration projects, will be voided, thereby making the SW tax unnecessary.  If the SW tax is adopted   and the stormwater permit is voided because of any of these outcomes, repealing it would be difficult.  Property owners will be stuck with a SW tax without a purpose perhaps indefinitely.  The county has not figured out what to do were this to occur.   

The SW tax fails to take into consideration that many municipalities located in the county drain into existing infiltration structures such as spreading grounds that are used for groundwater recharge.  This was a fact raised by Supervisor Kathryn Barger at the SW tax adoption hearing. All of the 35 cities located in the San Gabriel Valley and San Fernando Valley discharge runoff to the spreading grounds and, therefore, already meet the infiltration requirement imposed by the stormwater permit. The SW tax, therefore, would not benefit these cities.

The SW tax would impose on cities special pollution limitations known as TMDLs even if they are not subject to them. TMDLs are required to protect beneficial uses of water bodies (swimming, fishing, wildlife protection). The stormwater permit’s infiltration approach is specifically intended to comply with TMDLs.  The most common TMDL applicable to local governments are metals (copper, lead, selenium, and zinc).  The metals TMDL accounts for 70-80% of compliance costs.  But the LA board mistakenly applied the metals TMDLs to San Gabriel Valley cities. In order for a TMDL to be applied to a municipality it must appear on the Clean Water Act 303(d) list.  However, none of the water bodies in the San Gabriel Valley were 303(d) listed for metals.   This includes Pasadena, South Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge, and parts of LA, whose runoff drains to the Arroyo Seco. 

Also included are San Gabriel Valley cities that drain to Reach 2 of the Rio Hondo (14) and Reach 3 of the San Gabriel River (11).  Although the LA board corrected its mistake in 2016 when it updated the 303(d) list and stated that the Arroyo Seco, Reach of the Rio Hondo, and Reach 3 of the San Gabriel River are not subject to the metals TMDL, it did not amend the stormwater permit to make the correction.  

The SW tax is being justified based on the fear that water bodies in the county are not safe or clean.  What   the LA Regional Board and the county have overlooked is that through local government stormwater programs water, which been in effect since the early 1990’s, water quality has actually improved over the past two decades.  According to Heal the Bay’s 2017-2018 Beach Report Card, beaches from Malibu to the North to Rancho Palos Verdes to the south received “A” grades.  This is quite an improvement from 20 years ago.

Further, according to the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, an environmental think tank, metals and toxics are not a problem for Southern California water bodies.  Bacteria continues to be responsible for occasional beach closures, but not due to stormwater runoff.  Sewer-system overflows are the real culprit.  Overflows are caused by mechanical failures at sewage treatment facilities or pump stations operated by municipalities.  Overflows are also caused by sewer lines clogged by obstructions such as oil and grease. Sewer-system overflows are addressed through a separate discharge permit unrelated to the stormwater permit.          

Also at issue is whether the $20 billion spent county-wide on infiltration controls will produce beneficial outcomes.  Both the Regional Board and the county claim that green streets and parks retrofitted to function as infiltration basins will improve water quality.  USEPA is not convinced.  During the stormwater permit adoption hearing in late 2012, USEPA expressed doubt about the infiltration-oriented watershed management approach because there was no scientific data demonstrating that it would improve water quality.  

A very optimistic picture was also painted by the county regarding the amount of runoff that would be stored. The county claims that infiltration projects will produce 300,000 acre feet of water per year – enough to meet the needs of 2.5 million people.  This assumes that all of the infiltration projects would be constructed.  Not only would cost be an impediment – even if the SW tax is passed – but there are physical impediments.  Not all soils are conductive to infiltration.  And Green streets may not be appropriate for some areas where there are high traffic loads.  Green streets are a new technology, untried in vehicle commuter-oriented Los Angeles County.    

For these reasons Los Angeles County voters should vote against it.

(Ray Tahir is with TECS Environmental in Pasadena.)