August 24, 2004 - From the August, 2004 issue

Jack Weiss Makes A Case For the City of L.A. 's $500 Million Stormwater Runoff Bond On Fall Ballot

In order to meet the strict pollution mitigation guidelines laid out in the federal Clean Water Act, the City of Los Angeles is asking voters to approve a $500 million bond to upgrade the infrastructure that treats stormwater runoff. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Los Angeles City Councilmember Jack Weiss, in which he addresses the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and the politics of the stormwater bond on the November ballot.


Jack Weiss

Jack, can you describe for our readers the need for the stormwater runoff bond that's going to appear on the November ballot?

Well, I've learned about the environmental challenges we face here in Los Angeles over the past several years as chair of a new state agency called the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. The mission of the commission is to implement and spend some of the state water bond money that has been passed over the last several years to improve conditions in Santa Monica Bay and the Santa Monica watershed. Having said that, the funding and the commission are not sufficient to address the extraordinarily severe problem posed by urban stormwater runoff. The problem is simply this: whenever it rains, whatever is in the street-be it beer cans, big gulps, plastic trash, or anything else-gets swept into the gutters and into the storm drains and runs straight out to the sea. There is no cleaning facility to filter that trash. It's not like the situation with sewage, which is treated in the City of Los Angeles by the Hyperion plant. So whenever it rains, the urban runoff pours into Santa Monica Bay. It also pollutes urban waterways, most notably the L.A. River.

So, it's big problem, and there have been federal and state mandates over the past several years to try to get the city to address it. The City of Los Angeles has not been very good about complying with and meeting those mandates. In fact, for several years the City of Los Angeles was engaged in costly and unnecessary litigation against the regional water quality control board's efforts to impose stricter pollution controls on Los Angeles. I led the fight to get the City of Los Angeles out of those lawsuits and I'm pleased to be helping to pass this water bond.

What would the $500 million to be raised by this bond be used for, precisely?

The bond will fund a variety of projects. There will be some treatment potential. There will be projects that you would see throughout the storm drain system, whether they are covers to prevent trash from getting into the storm drains, some cleaning devices that would be used in key portions of the storm drain channel. Also, the bond would fund better enforcement on existing laws and regulations, and increased education. There also may be certain locations where you could create a pocket park that can be irrigated with urban water-brownwater. You would create green space in an area, and you would prevent pollution from going into the bay.

Jack, we've covered this issue over the last couple of years with a series of interviews with Judy Wilson, the former GM for Sanitation for the city and with Rita Robinson, the current GM. In those interviews, Judy was pretty blunt in saying that, "I continue to worry about the expense of removing all of the trash from the Los Angeles River. As you continue to ratchet up, that last remaining amount gets very expensive to remove. We're talking about the aesthetic enjoyment of the Los Angeles River; it's not a public health issue. So, that's a concern." Your reaction to Judy's comment?

That was the bureaucratic mindset that made it so difficult to break the city out of the series of lawsuits in which the city was unwisely participating. The environmental community is not demanding a zero tolerance policy for trash in the river and trash on the beach. They just want the city to do much better. I have worked closely with Heal The Bay, the Santa Monica Baykeeper, and the Natural Resources Defense Council changing the bureaucratic mindset and pushing forward a more aggressive runoff program.

I must tell you that even $500 million will not be enough to do the job completely. But without this bond, I don't know how the City of L.A is going to afford to be able to at least begin to meet these federal mandates. People need to understand that this is not a wish list bond project. These efforts are essentially mandated under the federal Clean Water Act. The City of Los Angeles, if it continues to go the way it has been going, is not following federal law, and we need to bring the city into compliance.

Judy went on to say, "We have new mandates called total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) which are going to require hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. We have trash TMDLs with a zero-limit for the L.A. River and Ballona Creek. By September 2006, we're supposed to attain a 20% reduction in trash we haven't even begun to implement. There's just no money to do it." That was the quote in the fall of 2003. What is your reaction to her assessment?

I don't think we are looking at that extreme a scenario, although obviously the goal would be to get rid of all the trash.

What is the goal then? What is the practical goal required by the federal Clean Water Act, and your understanding of Los Angeles' goal with respect to implementation of it?

The goal is to comply with the terms and conditions of the regional water quality control board's stormwater permit. A lot of what is discussed in that permit has to do with implementing better management practices (BMPs), and as long as the city is in good faith complying and is making strong efforts, zero tolerance will not be the legal standard and the city won't be at risk of being sued. It's certainly my expectation that if this bond is passed and if the city begins the programs laid out in this bond that the city's risk of being sued for noncompliance would drop substantially.

Is the $500 million that's being asked by the voters to approve with a 2/3 vote requirement going to be enough to get to the goal of a 20% reduction by 2006? And, what more would be needed to achieve complete reduction by 2015?

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I am confident that the bond will provide the necessary funding to ensure that the city achieves 20% compliance by 2006. Through an aggressive implementation of pollution control measures-like catch basin inserts for every storm drain in the city-the city can meet the goal. There are numerous ways to work toward the goal of a complete reduction by 2015. Whether it is through capture devices at the storm drains that empty into the river or diversion programs, the City can do it, but it will require a collaborative effort by City departments, the environmental community and other experts to make sure the City maximizes its effort for the cost.

Getting a 2/3 vote is always difficult. This is going to add about $57 a year to the average property tax assessment. Talk about the political challenges the bond faces.

You can't underestimate the political challenge of doing something like this, because people are oftentimes reluctant, for understandable reasons, to raise their own property taxes. But, every time you ask voters what they value, it's very clear that people will dig into their own pockets to pay for education, to pay for open space, and to pay for clean water. And the reality is that anyone who is familiar with the condition of the Santa Monica Bay and the condition of the L.A. River recognizes the tremendous need to do this and recognizes the tremendous failings of the current level of effort. So, with the environmental community squarely behind this, and with little, if any, organized opposition on the horizon, we have a good chance of passing this bond. And it comes against the backdrop of really important decision by the city to finally move in the right direction on clean water.

It took years, but I finally got the City of Los Angeles to drop its opposition to the Regional Water Quality Control Board's new clean water regulations, those are the TMDLs we referred to earlier in the interview. The Santa Monica Baykeeper had sued the City of Los Angeles for years, and the city very bureaucratically dug in its heels and tried to fight Baykeeper. Basically the city was fighting for the right to pollute rather than partner with the environmental community to do the right thing. I've been voting against that lawsuit for several years, and finally a majority of the Council came around.

So, we're seeing a new environmental majority on the City Council, and that's exactly what people in the city want. People in the city don't want elected officials who just go along with what the bureaucrats say. They want public officials who are representing their interests. This is a strongly pro-environment city, and it should have public policies that represent that.

What, if any, is the relationship between the funds raised by this bond and the mandated order that the city replace its long neglected sewage pipes?

Those are different issues, both in terms of the actual guts of the structures underneath our streets, and in terms of the funding. The sewer fees that people get with their DWP bill every month will pay for the sewage repairs. This stormwater bond would be a property tax assessment.

What's not being addressed by this capital investment that will still require action by the Council and its agencies and departments?

There's always room for public education and outreach efforts. When I was a kid, it was common practice for people to just throw their trash in the street. Today, I noticed that the storm drains on my street recently were painted with warnings that say "No Dumping Here, Flows to Ocean." That continuing process of educating the public and getting people to understand that every action that they take can have an equal and opposite reaction in the environment is also very important.

Let's switch topics to Homeland Security, particularly as it applies to DWP facilities and other strategic assets of the city. It's three years since 9/11. Has the DWP and its leadership acted appropriately?

Well, every week there are new revelations of mismanagement at the Department of Water and Power. The latest comes from employees and, as I understand it, in part from security employees at DWP who say that DWP is about as secure as a pound of swiss cheese. The security personnel apparently face little or no checks into their background, and once they get the security credentials, they then have access to the entire network of DWP's infrastructure. So, DWP contracted an independent security study after 9-11. They had told the Council on several occasions that they were implementing the recommendations from that study. I don't know why the mayor and his commissioners didn't do a better job of following up on those security upgrades.

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