May 31, 2013 - From the June, 2013 issue

LA Bureau of Sanitation's Adel Hagekhalil Trumpets Water Management Successes

In his following remarks, Assistant Director of LA’s Bureau of Sanitation Adel Hagekhalil addressed Room for the River: Los Angeles participants- part of a two-day gathering of water experts from California and the Netherlands exploring a “building with nature” approach to river revitalization. Hagekhalil shares the evolution of LA’s Integrated Resource Plan to reinvent the City’s approach to water management. While the end results of the IRP were: wastewater recycling, reduced importation, and supply reliability, Hagekhail notes that interdepartmental collaboration, community outreach, and increased interest in water throughout Los Angeles also are numbered among the plan’s successes.


Adel Hagekhalil

"We’ve made a huge difference in Los Angeles. But there are three things we need to move us forward, and that’s what the IRP (Integrated Resource Plan) is all about: Integration, bringing all the agencies together; innovation, thinking outside of the box; but the biggest thing is inclusion, bringing people into the process." -Adel Hagekhalil

First of all, I have a confession—I’m a reformed engineer. I’ve been to rehab; I’ve been to the Netherlands, so I’ve seen the light. To my friends from the delegation: welcome. It’s an honor to be here with you. I have a lot of things to say so I’ll try to be brief, and, really, I’m going to talk about what everyone has been talking about: it takes a village. It takes people working together; it takes government agencies, municipalities, regulators, federal and state agencies—everybody working together to really make it happen. It cannot be done by one agency.

What we do first is establish the vision, the future, and understand the challenge. I think what I learned from Holland is that it’s in their DNA. In our city and region, we have not been good about communicating that need for us to become sustainable as a city. We need to use more water locally. 85 percent of our water comes from somewhere else, and for us to continue and thrive as an economy in the Southern California region, in LA, we have to change how we grow and develop our city.

Our Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has said that our future depends on our willingness to adopt an ethical sustainability. If we don’t commit ourselves to conserving and recycling water, we will tap ourselves out. That speaks to the change in discussion eight years ago. We share challenges with everyone across the nation and the globe: climate change, pollution, growth, aging infrastructure, limited water supply, regulations, and lack of funding. To address these challenges, we need to deal with water as One Water. Our ratepayers will not want to invest in storm water, water supply, waste water treatment, in this, in that—they want us to come together and develop something that can give them the best benefit for their payment. I’ll share with you some of the things that we have changed over time.

The solution for us was about 13 years ago, when we came together and decided we needed to plan for the future of wastewater. But we couldn’t do it alone, and we had to think about breaking down silos. We found out that by bringing water conservation into the picture, the size of our facilities, sewers, and wastewater treatment system don’t have to be upsized. So we brought the Department of Water and Power into the discussion. We also said that we need to locate our wastewater treatment plants closest to the recycled water demand so it doesn’t make the cost of conveyance expensive and prohibitive.We also talked about stormwater and recharge, and we said, we have a pollution problem, but also it’s a resource, a benefit, something that we can look at. We talked about capturing storm water and recharging into the ground—Paul Brown is here, he helped us. At the time, people thought we were crazy when we talked about capturing runoff, using it on site, and doing all the things that we’re talking about now. Now, it’s the language. We’ve made a huge difference in Los Angeles. But there are three things we need to move us forward, and that’s what the IRP (Integrated Resource Plan) is all about. Integration, bringing all the agencies together; innovation, thinking outside of the box; but the biggest thing is inclusion, bringing people into the process.

For engineers, the easiest thing for us is to work in our offices, behind closed doors, to develop a plan, and go build it. It doesn’t work. We need to ask people what they want, engage them, and that’s what the IRP is all about. It’s a process that we’ve invested—we want to spend time reaching out to all agencies of the city, all the diverse residents and communities of LA, to ask the question: how do you see the future of Los Angeles in 2020?          

What we heard was interesting. The discussions were very diverse and heated, but at the end of the day, we all agreed we wanted a bright future for ourselves. We need to manage our water effectively, we need to be conscious of our existing resources and not waste them. We don’t want to build new facilities, we want to maximize the use of existing facilities. That discussion happened, and there’s a plan that we developed, called the Guiding Principals. Basically, people signed and said, “We believe in this.” We had meetings in people’s homes, at night, in restaurants; one time I went to a location at lunchtime to meet a stakeholder and talk to them. 

One of our greatest stakeholders (I love her to death), didn’t believe that she belonged to the process of the IRP. So we had a meeting in the office, she was not yet supportive of the process, but she was the biggest advocate for habitat and wildlife. So at the end of the meeting, I asked her if she had five minutes to talk to me. I said, if you give me five minutes of your time, I’ll tell you who I am and what I’m all about. I didn’t let the ego get in the way. That’s what we do: let go. It’s not about us; it’s not about the agencies; it’s not about who’s going to win; it’s about our future, our generation. I was able to have an hour-long talk with her, show her the pictures of the children as part of the Grease Avenger Campaign, show her the vision that we all shared, and from that day on she has been the biggest supporter of our effort today. We transformed people by communicating and by taking away the ego. We’ve talked about how a lot of us are stuck in our own agencies, our own heads. Someone said in the discussion today that we need to take away some of that classification, that “all about us as an agency” mentality, and think about the future, our recycling, our watershed.

When my daughter was seven, she asked me the first question I ever got from her that that was kind of tricky. She asked, “Dad what do you do for a living?” I answered, “We clean water so you can enjoy the beach.” She looked at me and said, “Thank you dad.” For me, that’s the pith of what we do. It’s about making this earth a better place to live. And the IRP brought people together, made people come to share the future, and it was so successful. We got support, we got endorsements, then we adopted an aggressive plan with three elements.

We had projects that we have to do, projects that we only would do if they were triggered by certain things. And yet the biggest thing is developing policy and institutional changes. The biggest one that Paula Daniles helped us through is the Low Impact Development Ordinance (LID), which I think has transformed the city as a whole. It captures runoff as part of new developments and redevelopments—basically the three-quarter inch of rain for us is an 85th percentile storm—using it on site and reusing it.

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We didn’t think that anyone would support this, even developers initially would not. But the public as a whole saw this, and really, what this taught us was communication. It’s really changing to break the cycle and encourage the management of water as One Water.

Really our discussion in 2004 was about getting funding. Proposition O brought money to address water quality issues, doing it in a way that draws multiple benefits. I believe Prop O was created out of the IRP momentum. People were talking about it; it got support because we had been going to the people. This bond measure that was a half-billion-dollar bond measure passed with 76 percent approval by the voters, probably the second-highest bond measure in the history of the city. That tells you that people believe in what we’re trying to do and have given their trust.

The good news is what we have been able to do with half a million dollars—building these multi-benefit projects, projects that are adding value and adding to quality of life.

I tell you now, water for a long time in LA was a West Side issue, a beach issue. People living on the beach were basically the only ones who cared about water. What we have done in the last 14 years is, we’ve brought it upstream into the watersheds. South LA is talking about water because of the South LA Wetlands Park. It’s adding park space for residents to walk and enjoy natural habitats. In the North Valley, we’re seeing excitement around Elmer Green Street. These projects address the flood issue, but also capture water and put it underground for water supply while improving the quality of life in the neighborhood—including the value of the property and helping people become walkers.

We just finished Phase II, it’s called Elmer Paseo. It’s a great project that takes things to the next level. Highland Park is an underserved community, and at Garvanza Park, we built an underground cistern to capture runoff and to reuse it for the park. We were able to redo the park to make it a better place for the community. People now can see it, touch it, and know about it. It’s also turning something that was an eyesore into something that invests in water quality but also provides something back for the community.

Similarly, on the West Side the Westside Park project also had a power easement that was an eyesore. We brought people together and developed a project to not only address water quality and recycling but also for the community to have a park and a place to call home.

The future is so bright; it’s really an amazing time in LA. There are opportunities to transform the city. It’s already a great city, but we can take it to the next level. How many chances do you have in life to transform a place? You can tell your grandkids some day about your small part in making this happen. Think about the half-billion dollars we had in 2004 and what it created. Imagine if we had half a billion dollars every year with the support and trust of the public.

What we’re doing now, after this process, is reengaging the IRP process. We’re talking about new issues, new stakeholders, about how to include the younger generation, and about ways to address climate change and learn from people like you, and reengage stakeholders to develop a vision for 2040 and get back to doing what we need to do and work together. Thank you very much, and I look forward to working with you.

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