May 7, 2017 - From the May, 2017 issue

New LA County Public Works Director Focused on a 21st Century Infrastructure

In March, Mark Pestrella was unanimously appointed by the Board of Supervisors as director of the largest public works department in the country: the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Pestrella, a veteran of the county, joins TPR for an exclusive interview to lay out his priorities. In addition to working on stormwater infrastructure as a part of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's announced funding proposal, Pestrella is working on the LA River Master Plan, improving community health through increasing tree canopy, and coordinating with other agencies to provide safe affordable housing options. 


Mark Pestrella

"My focus is on bringing 21st-Century infrastructure to the county. We’re very behind in investing in infrastructure improvements throughout the United States, within the state of California, and here in LA County, in particular. We need to get busy." - Mark Pestrella

In March, you were unanimously appointed by the Board of Supervisors as director of the largest public works department in the country: the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Lay out the department’s mandate for our readers.

Mark Pestrella: The LA County Department of Public Works oversees a vast array of infrastructure throughout the county, which totals some 4,000 square miles and about 10 million residents. It’s a tremendous task and a lot of responsibility.

The County Board of Supervisors has set priorities for all County departments. One major issue is homelessness, which our department is approaching from the perspective of making affordable housing and shelter available.

The County family is also prioritizing reinvestment in its own workforce. We’re looking to bring in the best and the brightest and to provide as many opportunities as possible to the residents of LA County.

My focus is on bringing 21st-Century infrastructure to the county. We’re very behind in investing in infrastructure improvements throughout the United States, within the state of California, and here in LA County, in particular. We need to get busy. And we have some great opportunities to do so, now, with the passage of funding measures, like Measure M, and recent gas tax legislation, which are both expected to bring in an influx of funding.

I’m excited to be guiding the department through this time. There’s great opportunity all around us to help improve the communities that we serve.

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl announced at January’s VerdeXchange Conference that she intends to bring a stormwater fee to the ballot to help achieve that 21st-Century infrastructure—an effort that would obviously involve your department. Elaborate on the role Public Works plays in stormwater capture, and what new investments in water infrastructure are likely. 

Public Works runs the backbone system of LA County’s local water supply. We operate 14 major dams in the area, with associated reservoirs, and another 27 large-capacity spreading facilities that replenish stormwater into the ground. We’re making some very large-scale investments in that system—close to a half-billion dollars over the next five years.

What we’ve been able to achieve in some parts of the county is pretty astounding. For example, in an average year, we capture more than 90 percent of the stormwater in the San Gabriel River Watershed and put it back into the ground for later use as drinking water. We also work collaboratively with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles’s Bureau of Sanitation to infiltrate some of the recycled water produced at their treatment facilities back into the ground, where it blends with stormwater to create a reliable local source of clean drinking water for the county.

We’re also becoming increasingly water resilient. In April 2016, a motion from Supervisors Kuehl and Solis directed our department, and other county partners that deal with water, to come up with a water resiliency plan for the entire county. That plan will articulate a vision for the collaborative and integrated management of all water within county borders—irrespective of who technically has the authority or the responsibility to manage it.

It will be a living document that guides how the county makes water investments and who we partner with to do so. Some of its major guiding principles include collaboration, governance models, redundant infrastructure, flexibility among agencies, and partnerships—whether through Joint Power Authorities or Public Private Partnerships (P3s).

Supervisor Kuehl is focusing on filling a funding gap presented to her by Public Works, which is capturing and cleaning more stormwater. We need to address the facts that some local water is still making its way to the ocean, rather than being captured and put into our groundwater basins, and that surface-water pollutants are still ending up in our rivers, lakes, and streams. We anticipate that the Board will decide this spring whether to introduce a ballot measure to fund these efforts.

This is a really grand idea—and it’s very characteristic of Sup. Kuehl, because she doesn’t like to do things on a small scale. She wants to take on the big policy issues. And of course, stormwater capture and Clean Water Act compliance have become major drivers of water policy in the region. 

On that same VerdeXchange panel, leaders like Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Liz Crosson of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office discussed the needs and challenges regarding better collaboration on water in Metro Los Angeles. Elaborate on the challenges of collaboration among cities and the County: what is the game plan?

Coming up as a public servant through the County system, I’ve always recognized that our major hurdle is governance. Governance of water—in LA County, the State of California, and even throughout the world—is one of the major stumbling blocks to improving local supply and ensuring that water is clean and affordable for communities. That effort is impacted by a lack of coordination, driven by the fact that water is governed in such a fractured way.

Collaboration is key, and the County has been thinking about it for as long as I can remember. It’s a great role for the County to play: the overarching entity facilitating coordination and collaboration among agencies. We are uniquely positioned to do this because we have a hand in the management of water throughout the region.

We need to make large investments, with our partner cities and agencies, to increase stormwater capture. And when we talk about partnerships, it really does come down to financing and funding. Cost-sharing is very important to us. Our concern is: How can we legally and effectively expand our money as a region, rather than as siloed entities?

The charrettes sponsored by VerdeXchange have been helpful in providing a place where we can put ideas on the table and share plans with one another. Just the act of talking to each other can make a huge difference in the long-term planning of our respective agencies. We’ve been able to talk about possible financing ideas and to prioritize what we need to do to reduce our reliance on costly, unreliable imported water supplies.

Also in this issue, NACWA President Adam Krantz notes that President Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan promises $100 billion a year. But given the scale of the need for new investment, won’t there still be a need to leverage private resources—such as through public-private financing of infrastructure projects?

We are seeking to leverage P3s to bring about more robust infrastructure for our communities. There have been examples around the country where this has worked out well, like in the water banking community, or in transportation, with privatized streets or large portions of the infrastructure operated by the private sector and overseen by government.

There’s a lot of work to do to figure out how P3s can be used on a large scale with respect to municipal infrastructure. But in general, I think partnering with the private sector helps us create community-based infrastructure. When government acts alone, we can sometimes end up with a product that doesn’t serve what the community wants. I see P3s as opportunities for open communication about what’s driving our individual lifestyles and what’s driving community. You can find that out through private investment.

In terms of financing, there’s a ton of need out there—especially at the city level—to fund projects that are outside of government’s current means. The water quality requirements under the Clean Water Act are expected to cost American cities something like $24 billion over 20 years. And using general fund monies to invest in water infrastructure, versus spending it on fire, safety, or public health, is not something cities are willing to do. That’s the biggest driver for cities seeking to partner with private entities on infrastructure buildout.

Personally, I’m interested in engaging with smart P3s. Our agency is very pro-government ownership of facilities, but we’re also pro-smart financing. P3s are a tool that we must have in our toolbox going forward.

Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Officer Gary Gero has spoken to VX News about the value of integrated climate planning. How is Public Works also moving in that direction?

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We’re really excited to have Gary join the County family; he’s an outstanding choice for sustainability officer. He’s doing a great job implementing the Board’s vision for sustainability and climate resiliency, both in internal operations and in collaborations throughout the region. I’m also working with Gary to help him develop that vision.

Our department has seen sustainability and green infrastructure as driving forces of our products for some time. In fact, the way that the department is organized forces a sustainability conversation on any project we develop, and Gary has been looking at the metrics we use in our planning, construction and implementation divisions.

To me, integration starts with planning. Our models for infrastructure planning are high-value, integrated, multi-benefit projects that bring about sustainable solutions. Last year, the Board of Supervisors and the City of LA both adopted the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision Framework. Climate resilience is obviously a big part of that, and we apply elements of it to the County’s integrated resource management practices.

In light of the Oroville Dam emergency, Governor Brown has spoken at length about the need for state and local jurisdictions to rethink and redesign water infrastructure in order to accommodate the “new normal” of climate change. How have Oroville’s infrastructure challenges impacted civil engineering planning in your department? 

The US civil engineering community has begun to acknowledge limitations in its ability to contain the inherent risk associated with natural resource management, particularly as it relates to flood management. Integrated floodplain management has to start with public education about risk.

Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the way we experience weather events in LA County. We are moving toward more violent storm seasons, where the same amount of water will come down in a more dramatic, frequent, and rapid fashion. On top of that, we can expect more debris flows because the drying effect of climate change creates the potential for more fires.

In Oroville, the capacity of the reservoir was challenged because there was more flow coming in than anyone expected. Nature has always been able to dole out surprises for us, but now, we need communities to become aware of the potential for more frequent fire and flood events.

Of course, we want to reduce that risk as much as we can. LA County is doing comprehensive planning for climate change adaptation, looking at how to design new systems going forward, as well as retrofitting existing facilities to deal with this “new normal.” But the fact is that much of the region’s infrastructure is already built, so adaptation has to include community awareness of risk—shrinking people’s comfort zones, and getting the public to buy-down their risk through the purchase of flood plain insurance. Risk reduction involves education, retrofit of infrastructure, and large-scale investments.

Public Works is working on multiple flood projects, including mapping more of the flood plain. We’ve identified, along with federal and state agencies, areas that are prone to typical flooding, as well as to the new types of flows we’re seeing. Our plan could potentially include purchases of land to move people out of harm’s way in areas where we know there’s high risk.

One area we’re focusing on is a big stretch along the LA River system, where water flows to the ocean. We want to adapt our system to better capture that water. But it’s the old political give-and-take in terms of weighing the highest and best use for our infrastructure against the highest and best use of land for private development.

That’s another component we have to think about: We are pretty fixed with respect to how much we can expand because Los Angeles is so built out. We’re looking for unique solutions, like distributing our flood protection facilities rather than creating large-scale facilities—even down to the lot level, talking to residents about what they can do to structurally flood-proof their properties while capturing some of that flow for future beneficial use.

I would be concerned if we started focusing on just one component, like flood control, without making similar investments in, for example, water conservation. As a society, we sometimes tend to have knee-jerk reactions, and we make investments to protect ourselves from the risk that most clearly shows itself. But we don’t want our climate investments to be siloed. We need to consider climate adaptation an opportunity to make continual adjustments to our infrastructure.

At the behest of Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, you’ve been working to increase green space and tree canopy in underserved areas of South LA. You’ve also taken on major responsibilities in addressing homelessness issues. Speak to both of these efforts.

I’m very proud to be working with such a progressive Board of Supervisors. The Board has made it very clear that they want us to undertake holistic, community-based planning, and to view our infrastructure investments as community investments.

One major focus has been greening our infrastructure. When we do, we consider not only the environment, but also community health. In fact, I don’t even call it “green infrastructure”—I call it “community-based infrastructure.”

When we talk about community health, we also have to consider those that are unsheltered. Community health is largely impacted by a lack of housing, so affordable housing initiatives have naturally come out of our attempts to improve the health and quality of life in our communities.

Our infrastructure is a huge part of the quality of life of our residents and the experience they have of their community. With the homelessness and green infrastructure initiatives, and with every plan we do, we are striving to improve that experience.

If we had the opportunity for you to return to VerdeXchange in January 2018—with a year on the job under your belt—what would you hope to be able to share about DPW’s successes?

I hope that at that time, I’ll be sharing a successful LA River Master Plan Update, with new ideas and an implementation plan to improve the infrastructure at the LA River, the San Gabriel River, and all the major watersheds.

I’m also excited about our plan to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. We’re leading in that area as a county and as a department, and I’ll have success stories to share by next year.

On the transportation side, it’s an exciting time for the county at large. I’ll be back talking about the partnerships established with Metro and the cities of LA County to continue expansion of our light rail system and leverage those Measure M dollars for improved green infrastructure in the county.

It’s a bright time for community improvements throughout LA County, and I’m looking forward to giving you that update in a year.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.