June 9, 2015 - From the June, 2015 issue

LA City Public Works Commissioners: Collaboration Among Departments Generates ‘One Water’ Innovation

The City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works recently welcomed a new commissioner, Heather Repenning. TPR spoke with her and with Commissioner Monica Rodriguez about the board’s priorities, from wastewater treatment, to sidewalk repair, to solar energy. Repenning and Rodriguez reflect on partnerships with the Bureau of Sanitation and with other agencies through the mayor’s recently created Water Cabinet.

Monica Rodriguez

“What we’re doing around our infrastructure should have as many impacts as possible in terms of helping capture stormwater [and] infiltrate.”-Heather Repenning

Heather, L.A. Mayor Garcetti recently issued an executive order directing: 1) a 20-percent reduction in per capita potable water use by the City of Los Angeles, 2) a reduction in DWP’s purchase of imported potable water by 50 percent by 2024, and 3) the creation of an integrated water strategy that increases local water supplies and improves water security. How does this executive order impact your Board of Public Works priorities?

Heather Repenning: The City of LA Board of Public Works’ approach to infrastructure is that investment should have as many impacts as possible in terms of helping capture stormwater, infiltrate, etc. That’s the way that we need to be thinking about our public works projects in light of the mayor’s executive directive.

I just came from the signing of an MOU for a Prop O project that’s a great model for the type of work we need to do going forward. The project will take stormwater from LAX, clean it, and put it back into the ground —as well as providing a park for the community. It took some time to get off the ground due to the many agencies involved, including the FAA. 

Going forward, the resources that the city expends should to be used in a way that takes water management challenges into account. 

Monica, as a board member, you’ve prioritized working with the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. Can you comment on the latter’s initiatives and achievements with respect to wastewater management, recycled water, stormwater capture, and conservation?

Monica Rodriguez: I’ll start by noting that the LA Board of Public Works just adopted the One Water LA plan, which will go forward to City Council and the mayor. It is our integrated plan of attack about how to prioritize water among all the different members of the city family and stakeholders. 

Overall, we as a city look back and realize that we paved paradise—we covered everything in concrete and asphalt. Now we’re losing all of that water. To come back all these years later and redirect our efforts toward groundwater capture and infiltration requires a lot more intention and thought, because we’ve already built out so much of our infrastructure. 

To date, there have been a number of tremendous pilots. We’ve looked at how to do permeable landscaping and bioswales—including the use of bioswales in the Green Streets program. A lot has been tested in the last several years. 

One pilot took place in Sun Valley, where there was chronic flooding. We created bioswales and inlets to allow water to actually penetrate. 

Some projects have occurred along Woodman Avenue, where we have enormous bioswales and inlets to capture rainwater. 

In addition, we launched the city’s first free rain barrel distribution through Keep Los Angeles Beautiful to encourage residents to shift behavior as it relates to stormwater runoff. That program has been successful. Given the square footage of roof in the City of Los Angeles and our annual rainfall, if every household was active in capturing rainwater, we would harvest over 17 billion gallons annually. 

We’re looking to continue and expand a number of programs like that. I think they’re all helping us to get there.

Heather, the Terminal Island Advanced Water Purification Facility Expansion Project recently broke ground. Could you address this facility’s value?

Heather Repenning: We are increasing our capacity to treat wastewater to a very high degree. That raises the question: Are we maximizing possible uses for it? 

It’s very important for the future of the city that we have the ability to treat our water to that degree. I know there are plans for doing that at Tillman, as well. With its geographic proximity to the San Fernando Valley Aquifer, you can potentially do more there. It’s a very exciting time.

The Terminal Island Advanced Water Purification Facility Expansion Project required collaboration between DWP and Sanitation. Particularly with cuts to water at Met and the mayor’s call to reduce our reliance on imported water, DWP and Sanitation are now at the point where they have to work together in a way that they haven’t had to, historically. And they are. 

The mayor’s water cabinet has created a place for that collaboration to occur. I think that there will be some cultural change at both agencies. The right leadership is in place to make that transition a smooth one. 

Folks up in Sacramento who are trying to make funds available to us for some of this work want to see that all of the agencies are working together on their plans and projects, as we go to Sacramento with financial asks.

Monica, can you share the institutional collaborations necessary to realize the potential of “One Water” to contribute to the city’s water self-reliance goals?

Monica Rodriguez: The plan is just the first step. Going forward will be challenging in terms of making sure that these priorities are woven into everything that we do, whether it’s how water is used during construction, or a whole host of other areas. There were over 300 stakeholder groups participating in the lengthy process. 

Frankly, my biggest concern, now that we’ve identified these areas, is that we are currently in the midst of a crisis. Now is our time to act, and we have to act swiftly. 

In executing this plan, I want to make sure that we go forward in an expedited fashion to create policies. For example, if people are going to do greywater systems in their homes, we have to work with Building and Safety. We have to work with Planning. It’s going to require a huge cultural shift.


Heather, could you elaborate on the mayor’s water cabinet, which is coming together pursuant to his directive to create an integrated water strategy? Who’s part of that cabinet, and what’s their charge?

Heather Repenning: The cabinet is comprised of leaders from all of the relevant city agencies, including DWP and Sanitation. Glen Dake, who is a board member at MWD, is also participating. We have community stakeholders, as well as a lot of other city departments that aren’t traditionally focused on water—Street Services and Rec and Parks, for example.

The group is working on monitoring and managing all parts of the mayor’s executive directive on water. It’s tracking our consumption statistics and looking at new policies for the city related to things like parkways and use of water at recreation centers.

Can we assume the mayor’s water cabinet is also charged with how to finance the initiatives being considered?

Heather Repenning: Yes—as with anything, if you’re seriously working on a program, you need to think about how it’s going to be funded. That is part of the conversation.

Heather, fixing the sidewalks of the City of Los Angeles—another of your board responsibilities—has long been an unmet need, and the subject of litigation. A recent court settlement now requires a major commitment of funds by the city to do these repairs. But the fix, it has been reported, will likely involve the removal of a great many street trees. Have the board and department addressed yet how best to execute the court settlement’s mandate, given likely public and the neighborhood resistance to the removal of so many trees?

Heather Repenning: I’m hoping that we can leverage the work being done around sidewalks for a bunch of different sustainability goals.

Yes, we need to be as creative as possible about protecting healthy trees under this program, but there will definitely be some impact on the city canopy because of the need to remove those trees that are essentially tearing up sidewalks.  It doesn’t make sense for us to fix the sidewalk and know that we’re just going to be back there in a couple of years fixing it again. 

That said, it will be an opportunity for us to engage the city around tree-planting. We will not only make sure that any tree lost gets replaced at a two-to-one ratio, which is the current policy—but we could even push that further. It’s an opportunity for people to help us find areas in their neighborhood that are right for tree-planting. It’s a chance for people to adopt trees and put them in their yards. That’s a great way to reduce energy consumption inside homes, as the tree grows and provides shade. 

It’s an opportunity for us to do some of the green infrastructure work that we’ve been talking about. Instead of just planting a tree, we could also do bioswales, if it makes sense geographically, to capture and infiltrate. Thinking along these lines, we could not only repair sidewalks, but also create future green infrastructure in some cases.

Monica, pivoting to energy and the city’s commitment to renewables, you have been focused for some time on solar-to-grid. Elaborate.

Monica Rodriguez: Yes. As a result of our pilot, we’re going forward with the project on a wider scale. We have just received an initial commitment out of the budget to launch the solar-to-grid program. 

It was critical to have a power-purchase agreement secured with DWP. In this upcoming fiscal year, that is going to be rolled out. 

In conclusion, what did this city’s pilot involving LADWP include? 

Monica Rodriguez: The solar-to-grid program places solar panels on our streetlights. We were able to capture energy from the panels on our streetlights and feed it back into the grid, managed by DWP. We had to set up an agreement with the Department of Water and Power so that we could cover the costs associated with the installations throughout the streetlights in the city.

Streetlights are a catalyst for a great deal of innovation that is happening in the city, beginning with the LED program and all its energy savings. We’ve received international recognition for work in that area. 

The LED program is in its final stages—we’ve completed roughly 75 percent of those conversions citywide out of the 215,000 streetlights that Street Lighting manages. The program was funded through low-interest loans, and the cost savings associated with our lowered energy use were used to repay those loans within seven years.

In one location, we piloted the city’s first publicly accessed EV charging station on public right-of-way—it’s tucked into a streetlight. That was unprecedented. You would think, in a city like Los Angeles, that we would have had EV charging stations accessible throughout the city for a very long time. But it wasn’t until about nine months ago that we got the first one installed on public right-of-way, and it was because we tapped into the streetlight infrastructure. 

The next item coming down the pike with our streetlights is co-location. We’re going to be installing a network of telecommunications with a number of cell companies. Small cells are going to be co-located on our streetlight poles, at no cost to the city, to help improve cell service. 

It’s been really exciting to see the kind of innovation that has surfaced around streetlights.


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