June 24, 2004 - From the March, 2001 issue

Sensible Regional Watershed Planning- Joe Edmiston Notes the Absence of Any

Spending millions of dollars on infrastructure to bring water into the Southern California region, only to then spend millions more pouring concrete to rush it back out to the ocean-now full of pollutants and waste-is not the most sensible "watershed management." At least that's what most professionals in the field are saying. At a recent meeting of the Speaker's Commission on Regionalism, SMMC leader Joe Edmiston stressed the need to "turn back the clock" to a time when watersheds were an appropriate governmental reference for regional planning.

Joe Edmiston

Joe Edmiston is the Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a State agency in L.A. and Ventura counties. In the context of his work, he has served in three different counties. He's been responsible for acquiring for the public trust over 50,000 acres in the last 20 years, and he has worked in at least four different mountain ranges and about a dozen different watersheds. So he has a lot of direct experience in the regional planning issues that those at the local level have to deal with every day.

In order to establish greater regionalism, we're going to have to turn back

the clock. We used to have much larger counties; Orange County used to be part of Los Angeles County. And we're going to have to turn back the clock on the fateful decisions made about 100 years ago, which have determined everything that has happened in Southern California since then.

It is a little known fact that there was a great debate between the predecessors of the Flood Control District and William Mulholland, and it's interesting how that debate occurred. Mulholland, of course, had the great idea of bringing water down from the Owens Valley. But the Flood Control District predecessors said, "No." They believed they could solve Los Angeles' then foreseeable water needs by moving from a flood control strategy to a water impoundment strategy, and therefore using all the great dams-such as the Pocoima Dam-along the face of the San Gabriel Mountains as water storage. And they went underground and understood perfectly the hydrology of the Los Angeles Basin. That was the proposal that was put forward by the Flood Control District, of all things. William Mulholland was the one who said that it was far too dangerous to allow the water that fell in Southern California to be used in Southern California [which also served Los Angeles' political interests quite well.]

The official policy ultimately adopted at Mulholland's behest was the following: Every drop of water that falls in any of the watersheds of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains in Ventura or Los Angeles Counties has to go to the Pacific Ocean as fast as possible. And, any impediment to that drop of water-such as a natural stream-is to be countenanced only if it can come within that greater scheme. Therefore, what we drink is water that has to be imported at the minimum distance of 300 miles and the maximum distance of thousands of miles, where the Colorado River starts.

That strategy worked very well when all you had to do was convince Pat Brown to do the great California water plan, which, if you remember, came down to a very close vote. We now look at this [plan] and say, "Oh, what great foresight that Pat Brown had." Well, it almost didn't pass. And we're soon going to find ourselves in a position where we have to reverse that strategy. Politics and good planning are no longer going to permit us to have a strategy of growth in Southern California wholly [based on] using other people's [water] resources. That is no longer politically possible, and we're seeing that in the [various] fights taking place right now.

The question is, How do we manage those resources that currently flow-by regional governmental policy-as fast as possible to the Pacific Ocean? And the only way we can do that is to turn back the clock to a time when we understood that watersheds were an appropriate governmental reference for pretty much all [regional] planning. For example, the official justification for the Angeles National Forest (they knew there was no commercial quality timber in the Angeles Forest) was watershed protection.

Andy Lipkis' TREES program [is a great example], and it shows what we intuitively know. We all know that a green playground is better than an asphalt playground. We all know intuitively that if water percolates, then by the time that we get it, either from a well or flowing into the ocean, we don't have to worry about posting signs that say: "Don't swim near any kind of an outfall." This kind of quality of life [link] has happened with every environmental issue. It's the progressive thinkers who first think about it in an aesthetic sense. Then, people start thinking a bit more practically. And finally, they realize it has become a public health issue. We saw this with air pollution; we're now seeing it with water quality. And we're realizing that once these issues come down to public health, then they finally get the countenance of governmental bodies saying, "Oh my God. We better do something about it."

But the fact of the matter is, we have no regional structures to deal with watershed planning. In fact, the only regional watershed planning going on right now is being led by private initiative. The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Watershed Council is bringing people together, and finally, the California Legislature recognized the need for this. We now have a commissioner here on the new San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers Conservancy, which is adopting for the first time-in California at least-a watershed boundary for that conservancy.


More significantly, though, are the local government issues. We saw this a couple weeks ago when every local government in Los Angeles lined up and said, "By God, it's the most terrible thing in the world that we've reduced the trash [threshold] in the Los Angeles River to zero." And a single-purpose, albeit regional, agency said, "We don't care. We're going ahead with our mandate. You have to reduce that trash." I don't know which side you're all on in that debate, but the fact of the matter is that we do not have a mechanism for addressing regional water quality issues and regional watershed planning, which are one in the same. So that's what it comes down to in terms of public health and safety.

Water is so important that I will give you a final issue here in terms of where the public stands. Most of you know that Esther [Feldman] and I along with some others have been involved in trying to get the public to give us more money to buy more beautiful land for all the different purposes-from aesthetic to public safety. [While energy has probably trumped all else this year as the focus issue,] the number-one talked about issue last year was water. That's why you saw all the commercials with the rivers and lakes [and the linking of the park and water bonds]. The number-one issue that people identify statewide is water-and watershed planning is regional government.


If there were a collaborative mechanism to resolve these issues, do you think collaboration is sufficient? [Your] last words were "regional government," and that's beyond a collaborative mechanism. Could you comment on a voluntary versus an involuntary process ?

Joe Edmiston

Collaborations are great when you have the same objectives. If everybody in the room says, "Yes, we want to get there," then you can collaborate and decide how you're going to get there. Far too often, bodies such as this try to make their recommendations [so that] everybody can agree because nobody wants to take out a fist and put it on the table and say, "This is what's going to happen." Well, the fact is, the problems we face today require giving somebody the authority to take out a fist and say, "This is the way it's going to be."

I don't pretend to be smart enough to figure out how that's done, but you have to address the fact that consensus and collaboration only go so far. I think you're seeing the end of it right now because all the entities we've talked about are single-purpose planning efforts. People are getting together to do single-purpose planning, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about how we bring all of those things together-and I don't know that collaboration is the best way to do it.


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