January 18, 2006 - From the January, 2006 issue

L.A. Regional Water Board Encourages Cities to Devise Innovative Solutions to Water Quality

One of nine regional water boards throughout the state, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board sets standards for the quality of ground and surface water the Los Angeles region. An arm of Cal/EPA, the board must monitor water quality and ensure that municipalities and agencies are adhering to those standards in order to protect the region's scarce, precious water resources. MIR was pleased to speak with board chair Susan Cloke about the board's efforts to protect our local environment.

Susan Cloke

For starters, let's touch on the significance of reports from China in December about spills and disasters that are affecting the water supply and water quality of the dense industrial areas north of Hong Kong. What do China's disasters suggest about the challenges faced by any metropolitan area with manufacturing and development, including Southern California?

The regulatory climate is very different in China than it is in the United States and especially as it is in California. China's history has created a situation where they're not as protective of water quality as we are in Southern California. Having said that, I think it's important for us to understand that it's an interconnected world and that we do have to take care of problems wherever they are in the world. We should, to whatever extent we can, offer technical assistance or expertise or anything that might help in any other country and, to the extent that we can, we need to cooperate with other countries to protect the environment.

You have been appointed by both Gov. Davis and Gov. Schwarzenegger to the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, where you've served twice as chair. What's at the top of your Board's agenda?

We have to remember that Southern California is a coastal desert ecosystem and that water quality and water quantity are interconnected issues in Southern California. That gives us the opportunity to tackle our biggest problems, such as storm water, in a way that creates and meets many of the different public policy goals of the Southern California region.

Storm water has been identified worldwide as a major source of pollution. Storm water is itself a vehicle for toxics, pollutants and trash that hitchhike their way to the ocean while causing problems along the way. However, in order to address storm water, we have to look at all the possible solutions, and I think that in Southern California that solution has to do with pulling a certain amount of storm water out of the route of travel and using it along the way for watering medians, watering golf courses, watering new playgrounds for schools, watering new parks in areas that don't have enough parkland. We should pull some storm water off every time we design a new area, repave a road, put in a median, add a street tree and do so in a way that uses storm water for groundwater recharge.

This allows us to achieve many different goals on the same public dollar, which I think has always been a hallmark of good public policy.

First of all, when we reduce the amount of storm water that flows to the ocean, we reduce the amount of pollution that reaches the ocean. Second, as we allow storm water to infiltrate it gets cleaned in the natural process as it goes through the earth and reaches the groundwater. It's getting cleaned and it's then water that the region can use.

At what cost, or at what prudent cost, can we do all that you suggest needs to be done to improve water quality?

That is a question that we have to continuously look at, but we know, for example, that the voters of California have approved bond measures that create public parks and address storm water issues. So, we know that state funds are available for these kinds of projects and in fact these kinds of projects are being planned and built all over the state right now using that funding mechanism.

We also know that we expect cities to provide public parks for our children, families and all of our citizens to enjoy. At the same time that we're meeting that public responsibility to build public parks, we can also create a better environment and better public health. I think that we do want to ask the question, "How much does it cost?", but we also want to ask the question, "What is the benefit?"

One of the things that we haven't done enough of is to calculate the economic benefit to our society from not having any beach closures, having better public health, having more opportunities for people to have recreation which always leads to better health for everybody and puts less of a strain on our health care system and so on. I think the question isn't only, "How much does it cost?" I think the question is also, "What is the price we'll pay if we aren't good stewards of our water?"


With regard to financing, the city of L.A. passed Prop O a little over a year ago. What's the best way to spend that money?

The passage of Prop O shows how committed the people of Los Angeles are to water quality and protecting public health. As to the question of how to spend the public dollar, I think the city is going at that in a very good way. They are holding public and community meetings in many different areas of the city to ask what they think their communities need, and they are working together with organized groups and individuals to come up with projects that will meet the standards of Prop O and the water quality standards. I know that many of the projects that are being submitted to them are the kind of projects I have just described to you – projects that have do to with creating more public parks, especially in underserved areas, and that create more opportunities to use storm water as an asset and not a liability.

Your district covers a great many jurisdictions, cities, and agencies. How do you get them all on the same page to implement initiatives like parks and storm water reclamation?

Our board sets the standards for water quality, and the responsibility of the cities and counties is to figure out how best their city and their county can achieve that water quality. So while the jurisdiction of Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board goes from the San Gabriel Mountains on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west and from the Channel Islands on the north to the Port of Long Beach on the south, we look to each one of the cities to look at how best to meet the needs of their citizens and their residents and how to meet the water quality standards in their own communities.

This is one of the reasons why we're looking at so many different approaches to using the bond money and the Prop O money together, keeping in mind that everything needs to be designed to meet the water quality standards established by the Board, which are of course within the framework of the Clean Water Act, but each area can figure out what meets their needs best.

Exactly how each community should respond is really, I think, an advantage since each community designs their own solution. We have one smaller city which is building a park that has a big grass bowl, and that's a good design for storm water infiltration. That will probably get them to the water quality standards that they need to meet, whereas in Malibu, where they have other issues, they're looking at building a treatment plant sized just to replace the septic systems in the flat areas and discharging cleaned water to a new wetlands park in Malibu which will allow them to meet their water quality standards with no outfall to creek or the ocean. That way they address both their concerns about growth and the problems which come from the septic systems, which are creating problems in the lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

Often it's charged that the environmentalists in Southern California are a bunch of coastal Caucasians concerned with their own neighborhoods with little diversity and little geographic reach. Earlier you gave the example of Malibu. Give us some examples of the reach of your jurisdictional responsibilities and the environmental movement into the inner reaches of L.A. County.

The board supported the Augustus Hawkins Park, which is in Jan Perry's district. We're working closely with Friends of the Los Angeles River and with the multi-agency, multi-organization coalition, which has come together for the restoration of the Los Angeles River. Many of the environmental projects that were agreed to under the sanitary sewer overflow case settlements are in northeast Los Angeles.

There are organizations all over the region, and many do focus on the oceans and the Santa Monica Bay, which is after all a regional resource, but there also are organizations all over the region that focus on environmental protection, whether it's cleaning a brownfield in the Valley, protecting an older neighborhood from sanitary sewer problems such as the organizations that came together over the sanitary sewer overflow case, which we settled during my first term as board chair, and which created great environmental protections for the communities that had been affected.

Our regional board and, I think, the governments in Southern California are concerned with issues of environmental justice and making sure that our public dollars are fairly and reasonably allocated and that our public regulations protect every part of our water body.


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