August 14, 2017 - From the August, 2017 issue

LA County Sup. Kuehl & CSO Gero on Stormwater & Community Energy Initiatives

At VerdeXchange 2017 last JanuaryLos Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl announced her intention to develop a countywide stormwater management and green infrastructure funding measure in early 2017. Since then, she has worked closely with new County Chief Sustainability Officer Gary Gero to develop a water resiliency plan involving massive expansions of existing and new stormwater capture to increase local water supply. TPR interviewed both Kuehl and Gero to check in on this planning, as well as to learn about the county's new community choice energy program, which is scheduled to begin delivering electricity on January 1, 2018.

Sup. Sheila Kuehl

"Every city in the county has a responsibility for a piece of stormwater cleanup, but it just doesn’t work unless we all work together. To me, that means that the county is best placed to lead on a regional plan for stormwater capture and reuse." –Sheila Kuehl, Los Angeles County Supervisor

"This is not a new phenomenon; at least 70 cities in eight counties in California are currently operating community choice energy programs." - Gary Gero, Chief Sustainability Officer, Los Angeles County

Supervisor Kuehl, at the VerdeXchange 2017 Conference in January, you announced that you were going to introduce a motion to develop a funding measure for neighborhood stormwater programs throughout the county. What progress has been made on that front?

Sheila Kuehl: We have hired a consulting group to work on this effort. As part of the countywide sustainability plan that Gary oversees, we are working on a water resiliency plan on water availability and quality, and looking at our ability to meet requirements on cleaning and reusing stormwater.

The consultant is also identifying, through outreach and building from the ground up, as we did with our parks initiative, what types of projects might be proposed as part of a countywide regional approach to stormwater capture and reuse. We want to be able to show people what it is they’re voting to fund, and what they’re going to get out of it.

We think a regional approach makes the most sense. Every city in the county has a responsibility for a piece of stormwater cleanup, but it just doesn’t work unless we all work together. To me, that means that the county is best placed to lead on a regional plan for stormwater capture and reuse.

Gary, how is planning and outreach for regional stormwater capture & reuse progressing?

Gary Gero: We’re coordinating very closely with the County Department of Public Works, who are the lead on this. We are also developing our sustainability plans concurrently, so we’ll be working together to deliver messages about water resiliency planning and the sustainability plan writ large. We’re in the early days on this, but you’ll see us out there in full force in a few months. 

Is there a successful public engagement model to identify projects and build support that you’re drawing upon for this new regional stormwater measure?

Sheila Kuehl: The best comparison might be in the area of transportation: If every city were to build a train only within its own city limits, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense.  Cities have to connect to each other. Stormwater recapture and reuse is very similar.

Still, as with transportation, we are also talking about local solutions. Perhaps what you’d like to do in your city is to use captured stormwater to replenish your own aquifers or subsurface water. Or you may want to clean it to a higher standard and use it to replenish your own drinking supply or wells. Every city is different, and these projects will be identified across the county.

But there must be a regional approach, because water doesn’t understand boundaries between cities; it just flows downhill to the ocean. 

Supervisor, when you laid out this opportunity at VX2017, with you on the stage was Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. Address the jurisdictional relationships that have to come together for this plan to gain public support.

Sheila Kuehl: Mayors, especially of large cities like Long Beach, are key to organizing the outreach and conversation, and hopefully also in terms of supporting the measure. There are 60 different organizations—some are cities and others non-profits—that are now on board to develop this plan with us and, frankly, to support the funding measure when it is placed on the ballot. That is really important.

This is something that LA County must do. We must increase the amount of water that we’re capturing and reusing, and we must increase the reliability of our water supply. We may have heavy rains for four months, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still in a drought. The Colorado River is becoming more mineralized and saline, and depending on the outcome of the Delta tunnel project, we don’t know whether we’ll have sufficient water coming from the north. There has been talk for the last decade about how much more we must secure locally.

That’s what sustainability means: It means that we have to develop local sources of water, energy and other resources. And recycling and reuse are the very best ways to create new water supply for the county.

We’re going to put together a plan for the entire county to guarantee sustainability of our water sources, and then we have to help people understand that this is a critical aspect of their lives.

Gary, we’re currently capturing in the county enough water to supply about a million and a half residents. How many residents would the investment envisioned by the supervisor allow us to serve?

Gary Gero: UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, led by Mark Gold, believes that we can get to 100 percent local water. I don’t know the timeframe in which we’ll get there, but I believe that it may be possible. In our sustainability plan and our work here at the county, with the leadership of Supervisor Kuehl and the new board, we need to be as ambitious as we can be. That ambition is going to be reflected in very aggressive goals.

The model we’re going to use is something akin to the energy industry, where there’s a priority loading order. In other words, you start looking at the first source we should be going after. In the energy world, it’s energy efficiency; the energy you don’t use is the cleanest. Water efficiency, likewise, is critical. Then, you prioritize all the other resources on a cost-effectiveness and sustainability basis. As we put together our sustainability plan and water resiliency plan, we’ll be going through that analysis and identifying where we think we should be getting water, and how we can get it.  

Are you able to speak specifically about the expenditure plan, such as potential rebates or credits, or is that all to be decided in the future?

Sheila Kuehl: It will be decided in the future, because we haven’t yet finished with outreach or the gathering of information. I have a couple of ideas, of course, but this is not up to me.

We need to identify what will be needed in terms of infrastructure in order to capture a sufficient percentage of stormwater. Some of our municipalities are reliant upon wells, but they’re having to dig deeper now because the water table is down. Stormwater projects could help bring the water table up. The questions of which municipalities might want to do that, how we would create the infrastructure, and what the Department of Public Works would be able to contribute, are the things that set the price tag for us. You need to understand fully what it is that you want to build before you can set a price tag and decide how to fund it.

When people say, “it rained, and millions of gallons of rainwater were poured out into the ocean. Why didn’t we capture that?” I want to be able to show them a plan for going after it. It takes people understanding that this is something worth taxing themselves for, one way or another.

Share the envisioned timetable for the water capture and reuse measure; when will it be shared with the public?

Gary Gero: The board motion asked for the expenditure plan, as well as the underlying water resilience plan, to be brought back within nine months. We expect to see a first draft of the water resilience plan later this year—maybe as soon as September—and a final draft in the second quarter of 2018.

Sheila Kuehl: We’ve also asked the Department of Public Works, in conjunction with our consultants and with Gary’s help, to develop an education program for the public about what our water situation is now and how the security of our water supply could be helped if we could capture more rainwater.


Gary Gero: We also spend an awful lot of money treating water that goes through our wastewater system to very high standards, and then we dump it out into the middle of the ocean rather than find a beneficial reuse for it. So, the water resilience plan will go beyond stormwater to consider a variety of local sources.  But, we do need to be prudent; not every local source may make sense. For example, we need to look at proposals like desalination very carefully to see whether that is the best resource for us.

Sheila Kuehl: Fortunately, a lot of people have gone ahead of us. The county Sanitation District recently ran a full-page ad about how they’re treating wastewater, and returning some of it to the Metropolitan Water District and some of it up to the spreading grounds. They are becoming engaged. I like those kinds of partnerships—and there again, the county is taking the lead.

Clearly, the county is being very progressive and aggressive on both the stormwater and renewable energy fronts. Let’s pivot to the latter and the county’s decision to go forward with a Community Choice Aggregation program. The L.A. Times headlined their reporting on the latter: “Why did L.A. County create another utility?”

Sheila Kuehl: Remember, though, after asking that question, the L.A. Times went on to say it was a great idea!  Recent state legislation allowed local governments to set up community choice aggregation as an alternative to the usual utilities that have a monopoly on the provision of electricity in every area. The county decided to take advantage of that legislation, and set up a CCA in which the county would be the first participant, but to create a joint powers authority that other cities could join by a vote of their city councils. The CCA will purchase greener energy for people in the cities that have opted in and in the unincorporated areas of the county for those who choose to have the CCA provide their electricity instead of Edison.

Gary Gero: This is not a new phenomenon; at least 70 cities in eight counties in California are currently operating community choice energy programs. At a recent hearing, California PUC staff indicated that 85 percent of Californians will be in a territory where CCA or CCE is offered by 2022, or 2025 at the latest. This is happening across a broad swath, and the business model has been proven out.

Where we stand today is that we have legally formed this joint powers authority with the county and several cities, and that JPA has started holding business meetings  to make decisions about programs and the kinds of power we’re going to purchase for our communities. We are holding firm to our intention of starting actual electricity delivery in January 2018.

The county of Los Angeles will be the guinea pig for the transition; our nearly 2,000 facilities in the unincorporated areas will be the first ones to allow it. As soon as we’re convinced that any bugs in the transition of the billing system have been worked through—because we did see some hiccups in Lancaster and Apple Valley when they launched—we’ll begin delivering electricity first to commercial and industrial customers, probably about a quarter million accounts, and shortly thereafter start rolling out to residential customers.

This is a real effort that has gone from conceptual or theoretical to actual. This train is starting to pull out of the station. We’re actively working with cities and encouraging them to get them on board as we move forward so they can be part of the decision-making. 

What is the reaction of the state’s utilities to CCA’s and LA County’s plans?

Gary Gero: Southern California Edison, by law and by practice, is officially neutral. They read the same PUC reports that we do, and they understand that this is the new world. They understand that communities around the state and in their territory are organizing around community choice aggregation efforts.

The PUC is by nature very cautious. It’s looking at this trend and starting to wonder how the state of California will continue to manage the grid when we’ve moved from three large utilities to potentially more than a dozen smaller utilities providing those services. We’re still working through that integration.

Providing greener, lower cost, more locally controlled energy that brings economic development to communities—that’s what the state wanted when it enacted this legislation in the first place, and that’s exactly what it’s getting. Now we want to make sure that we do it in a way that is protective of the grid and of the remaining ratepayers who don’t move into CCAs.

I assume you are proud of California’s decade long energy revolution. What is the need to create localized CCAs, if the state is doing a “fantastic job” growing the renewables market?

Sheila Kuehl: California is doing a fantastic job in some ways, but remember that the utilities that serve our County have a monopoly. If, for instance, you’re in the city of Los Angeles, you must buy your electricity from the Department of Water and Power. Well, the Department of Water and Power buys 27 percent of their energy from coal-generated sites. And while Edison maintains that they don’t get any of their energy from coal-burning, they do use a lot of natural gas.

If you don’t want to use energy generated from those sources, you might be left saying, “I want pure green energy. How come I can’t buy it?” You don’t have a choice. Really, this came out of the good old-fashioned American concept of competition. That is: Can I offer you something you want more, and can I offer it to you even a little more cheaply?

That is another amazing point: Believe it or not, there is a glut of renewable energy on the market now. Whereas Edison and others have these long-term contracts that they’ve already bought, we at the county can actually be nimbler and probably buy at lower price.

One million people live in the unincorporated areas. We say to them: You don’t have to switch. You can stay with Edison; that’s fine. But look what we’re offering you. You could have whatever number we vote on, perhaps 80 percent green energy, and maybe we could offer you better rebates for energy efficiency in your home. Maybe we could offer you better rates if you’re generating your own energy. The county has lots of rooftops we could put solar cells on; we plan to generate energy for the CCA too.

The bottom line is: Don’t we deserve to have a choice?

Gary, you mentioned the challenges faced by early adopters. Do you think these new CCAs will have the administrative capacity to maintain the same level of service as utilities?

Gary Gero: At the end of the day, yes. But it is certainly possible for a CCA to be too small, and

it may not make good sense to replace three IOUs with 80 CCAs. There is an economy of scale that comes with a certain size—a certain power in the marketplace to get good deals on energy. And, if you’re too small, you could also simply not have the technical capacity to manage it well.

There is a sweet spot in terms of the size of a CCA, to get both the deep technical understanding of what is needed to purchase and deliver power while maintaining adequate grid resources and grid stability, and also to take advantage of the economics. I would raise a caution against having too many smaller CCAs that don’t have that capacity.

But I’m not at all worried about the capacity of the CCA that the county is creating. We will be the largest in the state of California when we launch, and I think we’ll be able to attract the best and the brightest in terms of an executive director and staff to manage the day-to-day details of energy procurement, scheduling, and billing.

Sheila Kuehl: We’re hoping that a lot of cities will join us. That will create greater efficiencies. But remember that Edison is still doing the delivery to your home, as well as the billing. It’s not like we’re building a whole new distribution system. We’re simply identifying greener sources of power and putting them into the grid.


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