June 26, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

County Public Works Needs Bond Funds to Invest in County Roads & Mobility

MIR could fill an entire issue with articles on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and still describe only a portion of its accomplishments & responsibilities. By some measures, L.A. County DPW is the nation's largest public works agency-serving not only the millions who live in unincorporated county territory but also provides many services to L.A. County cities. The result is a county organization that deals with everything from roads to sewers to flood control. It must also coordinate its activities also with cities in the county, and abide by the regulations set forth by a legion of regulatory agencies. In this MIR interview DPW Director Donald Wolfe explains some of his agency's activities and provides insight into current issues affecting the county and region, including the upcoming vote on the state infrastructure bonds.

Donald Wolfe

How important to L.A. County is the infrastructure bond package that will be on the State's November ballot? If the voters approve the bonds, in what county projects would the funds be invested?

The transportation element of the infrastructure bond proposal is important to us because the unincorporated area of the county will realize about $194 million out of the $2 billion earmarked for cities and counties. It will also provide other pots of money we can compete for as a region, so we are looking forward to being able to improve the condition and safety of our roads and relieve traffic congestion and proceeding with other transportation projects. Our current backlog in maintenance of our road system is about $300 million. The $194 million will back-fill about two-thirds of that need, which is a very significant fix for us. The other important part of the road funding issue is, of course, the Prop 42 fix the bond package provides for, which will make it more difficult for the state to dip into Prop 42 funds to balance the state budget. We have lost Prop 42 monies for two consecutive fiscal years and that has contributed to the rapid deterioration of roads in the county. We calculate that a dollar not spent on road maintenance today translates to $4 to $6 in the future. So when you are not keeping your roads in good repair, you are simply borrowing from the future at a very high interest rate.

Please share with our readers the County Board of Public Works' scope of responsibilities, for not only roads, but for your entire set of responsibilities.

L.A. County Department of Public Works has, to my knowledge, the broadest span of public services of any similar department in the United States. We are responsible for five general aviation airports and for about 3,100 miles of road in the unincorporated areas. We have the largest municipally-owned flood control system in the world, providing the backbone of flood control for the entire Los Angeles basin.

We maintain 5,200 miles of local sewers in the county and 41 cities. The County Sanitation Districts and L.A. City Sanitation have the backbone systems but we maintain the majority of the local sewer systems. We serve about 200,000 customers in our various water works districts throughout the county. We are the building official for the county, the county surveyor, and the county geologist. We are responsible for managing the design and construction of county buildings such as hospitals, courthouses, and fire stations. Currently under construction is the County/USC replacement hospital.

In addition, we are unique in that we provide services to almost all of the cities in the Los Angeles County. Some of the services are paid for directly through the property tax, like the flood control and the sewer maintenance effort. For others they contract directly with us on a cost basis for maintaining roads, traffic signals, and municipal storm drains, building code enforcement, etc.

Right now one of the key focuses of the department is the storm water quality issue and the restoration of beneficial uses in various receiving waters.

This interview will run concurrently with MIR's interview of Heal the Bay's Mark Gold; please elaborate on the Southern California public works challenge of meeting TMDL limits. Why do public agencies resist the zero mandate advanced by the environmental community? Why is a federal court reviewing the use of numerical limits test for TMDL?

The county and cities believe that the concept of numerical limits for municipal storm water discharges is not defined in the federal statutes. Also, you can put a numerical limit on discharge from a factory, but not for storm water runoff, which is non-point-source. Obviously the Clean Water Act requires municipalities to undertake programs, referred to as best management practices, to reduce pollutants in storm water discharge and we are committed to that effort. However, we feel very strongly that Congress never intended for municipalities to be treated the way that industrial dischargers are treated, which basically is to require capture and treatment before you release to receiving waters.

We also believe that many numerical limits are unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Sometimes even the background pollutant levels-pollutant levels that would be occurring even if there was no human impact on the environment-exceed the numerical limits for municipal discharges. One primary background pollutant is bacteria: if you go to a pristine area that has no human impact at all, you are still going to find bacteria in the discharges from that area that frequently exceed TMDL numerical limits.

We believe that Congress intended for municipalities to comply with what's called "maximum extent practical," or MEP, in their compliance effort. In other words, you come up with a suite of best management practices to reduce pollutants. You install, operate, and maintain them, and then you determine whether or not you are achieving a reasonable reduction. If you are not, then you have to come up with an additional suite of BMPs on top of that. That's called the iterative process. That is the way we have been facing the challenge of reducing pollutants as a permitee; the iterative process to the maximum extent practical. I believe we are making progress.

Some of the difficulties are that there is no accepted definition of the MEP, and, of course, the environmentalists strongly believe there ought to be numerical limits and that there should be no limit to the extent that a municipality has to go to in order to achieve them. Therefore they are not proponents of the concept of maximum extent practical.

But, you can also understand where the enviros are coming from. The Clean Water Act has been in effect for over 30 years, and what have we accomplished with respect to cleaning up storm water discharges? We haven't accomplished much. So there is understandable indignation on their part at this point. Of course there hasn't been any real pressure on municipalities until recently to reduce pollutants in their discharges, so we are way behind, and we are playing catch up right now and that is very difficult to do.

And then of course you have the situation of municipalities having to balance the demands of their citizens with the revenues that they have available. Elected officials are having to make decisions to close hospitals, close health centers, cut back on police services, and release of criminals from jail early. It is much more important to spend your tax dollars in those places. Those are tough decisions that politicians are making because they have to balance all of the other social needs and social goods along with storm water quality when determining their budget.

How should the 88 cities in the county and the environmental community approach the issue of TDMLs and the challenge of cleaning up of storm water discharge?

We try to approach it from a collaborative standpoint, and I think that we are doing pretty well. I believe that we as a department have a very good working relationship with the environmental and regulatory community. That doesn't mean that we don't fight over issues. We do agree on the necessity-both from a legal standpoint and as a "right thing to do" standpoint-of municipalities making a concentrated effort to clean up storm water discharges. If you look at the record, the county has litigated with the regional boards on some permit issues. People have read about how we "challenged" the permit that was issued in 2000, and that we were resisting compliance. The truth of the matter is we challenged five paragraphs out of the 100-page permit. That is not exactly challenging the permit or its authority.

We focus on things that we think are critically important to the Flood Control District and the county with respect to any challenges that we might have. We try to confine our challenges as much as possible to the administrative level and avoid costly litigation. We work very closely with the regional board staff. We can talk to the executive officer of the regional board, and many times we have made a lot of progress on some of the critical issues. We've taken a very proactive effort in building relationships with the regulators, other members of the regulated community, and the environmental community, because I think working together in cooperative fashion is going to work most effectively.


There are many things that the environmental community can help us with; one of them is fund-raising. They do a very good job of bringing together important people, getting businesses to come together and do joint efforts with us, and in supporting any effort that we might have in going to voters, Sacramento, or the federal government to get money.

Does the city of L.A.'s Measure O, which passed as a result of a coalition between the environmental community, city officials, and others, serve as a model for what the county and other cities should be doing in the years to come to fund cleanup?

Yes, it does. Measure O was a great start, assuming the money gets used effectively with respect to storm water quality -I think that it will be. The problem is twofold with the bond issue. One is that it is one-time money that can only be used for construction and not maintenance. In many cases, the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of construction, particularly over a period of time. And it to be perfectly blunt, although $500 million is a lot, and it will help make a difference, it is just a drop in the bucket of total cost of compliance with TMDLs and the permit for the Los Angeles basin. Right now the cities and the county spend, on an annual basis, about $350 million just complying with the prescriptive requirements of the permit. TMDLs are going to be much more expensive than permit compliance.

As far as a model, right now we are working with the cities, including the city of Los Angeles, the environmental community, the regional board, the private sector, and virtually everybody who has an interest in storm water quality, in county-wide watershed infrastructure work group to develop the Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan. That plan is due out at the end of this year, and it will map out everything that we need to do for the next 20 years in order to comply with the permit and the TMDLs.

The next step will be to develop a plan, and go to the voters-we're looking at November of 2008. We will need the approval of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, and we will need the support of all the movers and shakers in the county, primarily the elected officials in the various cities, and we're going to have the very difficult task of proving to the voters that new money is necessary to improve their quality of life and that we can be trusted with the money.

We would prefer to have some sort of a benefit assessment where there is ongoing money, but frankly, those don't seem to be too popular with the voters these days. Bonds seem to be a little bit more popular. If we fail in that effort and in future efforts, we are going to have a real dilemma with respect to funding these efforts, because we are talking tens of billions of dollars.

Is Los Angeles County's present stormwater infrastructure sufficient to meet the demands of both current and projected county population growth?

In general, the capacity of the backbone stormwater system is good and should remain that way. Of course, maintenance is an issue. In the future when an area develops, we are going to have to require that the discharge from that area does not exceed the current discharge. That is an agreement we made with the Corps of Engineers when they improved the capacity of the Los Angeles River and the Rio Hondo a few years ago. We still have a few areas in the county that are subject to flooding during major rain storms, and of course everyone knows about Sun Valley because that is where every time it drizzles all of the TV crews head out because they know they are going to see some big trucks throwing up huge walls of water on San Fernando Road.

L.A. County Public Works is involved in innovative relationships with Treepeople and other groups to plan and implement a model water conservation/flood control project in Sun Valley. Could you elaborate on that collaboration?

Because that is the last area of flooding that we have in the county, we were approaching that problem by saving money and planning for a huge storm drain project. At the same time we were planning the storm drain, the issue of watershed management came up, along with the issues of water quality and water conservation.

Our tapping of streams in the Southwest has been maximized so we are going to have to start relying more and more on local water supplies in the future. So, all of these things came together and, contrary to our traditional view of rainwater as a nuisance, rainwater was suddenly looked at as more of an asset.

We took this as an opportunity to do things differently with respect to flood control. We started working with the local community, the city of Los Angeles, Treepeople, the political leaders in the area -very importantly, Supervisor Yaroslavsky has been a big advocate. Surprisingly enough, everyone has come together. When you pencil it out, even though it is going to cost more in the short term, all the benefits, which include groundwater re-charge, removing pollutants from the watershed, the greening of the area, which is in dire need of recreational facilities and green space, all make the cost-benefit of the holistic approach exceed the cost-benefit of simply channeling the water into the ocean as we usually do. The city of L.A. Department of Water and Power, the city of L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, and the city of L.A. Parks and Recreation, are all big supporters of this effort because they all benefit.

There are 88 cities in the county in addition to the county itself. What has been, and what ought to be, the relationship between these cities and their public works needs and the county's public works department which you manage?

With the respect to flood control and storm water quality, the county has two entities. There is the county of Los Angeles, which is a municipality like the city of L.A. and the rest of the 88 cities. There is also the Flood Control District, which is a separate entity that just happens to have the same board of directors – the County Board of Supervisors. The Flood Control District, as the conveyor of the runoff for the area has accepted a major responsibility for leadership in both flood control and in storm water quality.

We provide the umbrella programs in a lot of areas including monitoring and public education. We do all the reporting to the regional board. We are the liaison between the regional board and the cities. We basically do the majority of the busy work involved in compliance. We develop best management practices; we put them in; we see if they work; we help refine them; and we work with industry. The county has also accepted leadership responsibility in other infrastructure areas so that all of our various agencies like Road Maintenance, Sewer Maintenance, the Waterworks Districts, our industrial waste people, and our building code people try very hard to be innovative leaders in their areas of responsibility. We are an asset to smaller cities with fewer resources to rely on.

Even the city of L.A., which is very rarely willing to take a "we'll follow you" role, and that is understandable considering their size and abilities, very much enjoys our status as the principal permitee in the storm water permit because we help act as a buffer between them and the regional board, and a buffer between them and the other cities in the county.


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