April 16, 2018 - From the April, 2018 issue

Mark Pestrella on LA County’s Transformative Stormwater Plan

Mark Pestrella, in his first year as Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works,  has brought broad vision to the historic regional agency. Now, he shares an update on the county’s priorities, namely, a proposed climate resilient funding plan for stormwater infrastructure that would both invest in innovative ideas and improve LA’s existing capture/storage system. The proposal will eventually appear on the LA County ballot, and has been called crucial to the success of the Los Angeles River revitalization—another complex county project Pestrella unpacks in this special TPR interview.

Mark Pestrella

"With the Safe Clean Water program, we’re really saying: We think there’s more that could be done, and there’s an innovative and environmentally sensitive way to do it that meets the needs of our communities." - Mark Pestrella

The LA County Public Works has begun taking community input on its Safe, Clean Water infrastructure program. Could you share the program’s goals?

Mark Pestrella: It’s an exciting day for us to finally bring forth this innovative infrastructure program proposal. We are proud to sponsor this program to improve the water resiliency of LA County by increasing our stormwater capture portfolio.

Our goal is to improve and optimize the county’s existing flood protection and water conservation systems through a capital improvement program for new infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure will be in the old style, where we capture water in large ponds that infiltrate it into the ground, and others will be newer ideas like Green Streets, where we use biological treatment methods to capture, clean, and conserve water within our street system. The program will also encourage private investment by making low-impact development a key component.

All of this is in the service of capturing and utilizing stormwater as a resource for drinking water supply—and improving the quality of surface water in Los Angeles County.

Elaborate on the new portfolio investments the program is likely to fund, and on the growing role the County’s Public Works Department is assuming in stormwater capture and management. 

LA County Public Works operates the Flood Control District for Los Angeles County, which covers the greater Los Angeles Basin to the county line. There are about 2.1 million parcels of land within the district, and as you can imagine, it’s varied in geography, demographics, and more.

We have proudly protected the community from potentially devastating flood damage since the 1930s. The infrastructure that was installed at that time—iconic systems like the LA and San Gabriel rivers; 2,500 miles of underground storm drains; 14 major dams in the San Gabriel Mountains, which currently capture one third of our drinking water supply; and 27 spreading facilities—had the coequal goals of flood protection and groundwater replenishment. We want to optimize our existing system and distribute additional stormwater to new infrastructure across the Los Angeles Basin.

Each year when it rains, about 100 billion gallons of water makes its way to the ocean and is wasted. We think that with new distributed infrastructure, we could catch about a third of that water before it gets to the sea. That would almost double our current annual stormwater capture and groundwater replenishment rates.

The infrastructure we’re proposing now is unique. In general, to capture water, you’ve got to slow it down, and you’ve got to have a place to store it. Not having gigantic pieces of land in Los Angeles anymore, we’re now looking to store water at the neighborhood level. In some cases, that means rain barrels on properties, and on a larger scale, it means park-sized cisterns—where we put a storage facility underneath a park to capture and store neighborhood rainwater. In a sense, we’re trying to un-pave LA. We’re trying to make communities throughout LA more porous.

There are a lot of interesting ideas about improving surface water quality using our existing plumbing, as well. One thing we’re looking into, which was unheard of just a few years back, is connecting the county’s stormwater capture system with its wastewater system to divert polluted urban runoff to treatment plants.

This past January, a resiliency panel at VerdeXchange 2018 hosted public works representatives from Houston and Mexico City. Given your experience with natural disasters, how challenging is it for public officials to entice the public to think in advance about the value and importance of strategic investments in water infrastructure to their quality of life?

This is a big part of how we define resiliency. The folks in Houston did a great job in terms of responding to the emergency they faced. What happened there was partly due to missed opportunities in land-use planning for the safety of the community. But at the end of the day, no community could withstand the dramatic amount of rainfall they saw there.

Climate change is having a significant impact on the way rain is delivered throughout the United States, and our infrastructure today is not intended to move the rainfall from a 1,000-year storm through a community.

Here in Los Angeles, we’re also seeing dramatic shifts in weather patterns and rainfall that we believe are due to climate change. We’re experiencing a bipolar climate, where we either see the extreme weather event of droughts—spells of dryness and heat, where we’re not replenishing groundwater and dry plant life is accelerating our fire cycle—or the extreme weather event of highly intense rainstorms, where the amount of water we’d expect to get over a long period falls all at once.

When you run a system like ours as long as we have without any major flooding or damage to properties, like in Houston, people tend to start taking it for granted. But these extreme weather events have increased public awareness of the importance of their water system. They’re becoming more aware of where their drinking water comes from and how scarce it can be in our area. They’re aware that floods and fire could impact them.

It’s unfortunate that this is what it takes, but events like those in Houston, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico do help us get people focused on resiliency. We’ve been talking to the public about this issue from a public health and wellness perspective, and taking the opportunity to ask what more we can do.

With the Safe Clean Water Program, we’re essentially saying: We think there’s more that can be done, and there’s an innovative and environmentally sensitive way to do it that meets the needs of our communities. We know, and the public knows, that we could do more. We’re asking them if they want to pay to improve the resilience of their water systems. 

Specifically, how are you reaching out to all 88 cities in LA County so as to better align with their priorities, find common ground, and gain their support for your proposed water resiliency investments?

It has been a long journey, and the County Board of Supervisors deserves the credit for their leadership over the years. This board in particular has focused resources on collaboration across the region, not just the unincorporated areas. The direction from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, our champion on the measure, to get out and communicate has been fantastic.

One common issue facing all the cities, and the unincorporated county, is the need to improve the quality of water in our lakes, rivers, streams, and the ocean. We’ve been grappling with that for many years. Other commonalities are the fire, flooding, and water supply issues facing every city in the region.

Also, all cities are obligated to comply with mandates from the federal government under the Clean Water Act. Those requirements will cost the region something like $20 billion over 20 years, which is a huge obligation.

Cities in Los Angeles County have a permit that requires them to capture runoff within their city. They are allocated a certain amount of water to be captured, cleaned, and conserved. Across the 88 cities, elected officials are facing a funding gap to meet those requirements, and they’re looking for relief. That gives us a place to start when we talk to elected officials about the Safe, Clean Water program.

The Safe, Clean Water Program proposes to create a capital improvement program that would capture water before it leaves cities, and then put it back into the ground. It also proposes to return a percentage of the money directly back to cities. This would help cities both meet federal regulatory requirements and provide for unique projects that contribute to the greening of their urban areas. We’re seeing a nice alignment among urban greening, combating climate change, and complying with local obligations under the Clean Water Act.

I really believe that this is the time for Los Angeles to move forward with a program like the Safe, Clean Water program. Not only is it needed, but it has also matured to the point where we have really good projects ready to go—as well as the willingness, understanding, and support of the community to get something off the ground. 

Could you address the planning efforts underway on the LA River’s revitalization? At VerdeXchange, Dan Lafferty from your department explained how Public Works is beginning an update to the River Master Plan. What are the goals of this new master plan?

This planning effort covers the 51-mile length of the river. It incorporates 23 municipalities, and a population of about 1 million people living within a mile of the river. Moreover, we are linking this plan to more than 114 planning documents that only look at sections of the river and uniting them in one comprehensive river plan.


A priority for the county is to make this a community-first effort. We really want all the planning we do, and any projects that come out of it, to be reflective of the cultures that currently exist along the river. We are seeking to understand the needs of each community in terms of health, equity, and open space. And of course, flood protection can’t be left behind, because that is a raging river when we get a good storm going. Water stewardship is also a huge part of this: We’re seeking to capture more of the water in the river, rather than letting it go off to the ocean, and put it to use in the communities we serve.

In terms of milestones, we’ve already formed a planning team, which now includes Frank Gehry. We also have a 40-person steering committee that represents multiple jurisdictions and interests; its first meeting was in early April. We expect to have the master plan for the entire LA River done by spring 2020.

That is an ambitious schedule, but we feel comfortable with it. The Flood Control District, Public Works, and the County have been planning and building on the river for quite some time, since we share operation and maintenance with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

TPR recently published an interview of State Water Resources Board Chair Felicia Marcus on the challenges of intentional management of seemingly conflicting LA River policy priorities—i.e. wildlife protection, livability, and water storage and reuse. How is balance found? 

Since the day the river was channelized, it has been a challenge to balance all the competing interests around it. That’s just the story of water, isn’t it?

Like every piece of infrastructure, the channel has a purpose. That purpose can change, as long as it’s still about serving the community. This channel was originally built to protect lives and property from flooding and improve the economy of Los Angeles—from Calabasas, through downtown, to San Pedro. Prior to the 1930s, the areas around the river suffered devastating flood damage that wreaked havoc on the economy, transportation systems and housing.

Throughout the years, we’ve been challenged by many users of the river—poets, artists, elected officials, citizens who live along it or recreate there—to meet sometimes competing needs. We are looking to represent all the different interests along the river in our stakeholder advisory group, while also committing to an enormous outreach effort at the community scale.

A big goal of this planning process is to connect communities. In some ways, the river has actually split communities apart. There’s not a lot of interaction between the communities in the east and west, or north and south. But imagine if there was a bridge across the river in the southeast county area.

 In our outreach, we tell the story of each mile along the river, while connecting communities along the way. We will share the story of mile one with the communities at mile 51. People find out about one another, and it creates a larger, integrated river community and a greater sense of belonging in Los Angeles.

For me, one of the great transformative opportunities of this process is to interconnect LA—from north to south by bicycle, pedestrian pathways, or even boating; and from east to west by spanning the river and creating public spaces on those spans. Making the LA River into a gathering place, as rivers are naturally, is the overarching vision for our master planning effort.

In the Frogtown neighborhood of the city of LA, just south of Griffith Park, developments are being proposed and planned—parks, housing, restaurants, bike lanes, shopping—that seem to compound the challenge of finding a balance of uses. How is the planning for this challenged strip of the LA River proceeding? 

It’s been interesting to watch what’s going on in Frogtown. We saw the precursor to it as we were drafting the Lower LA River Revitalization Plan, and one of the key components we came up with was a toolkit for dealing with potential gentrification and real-estate speculation. That’s going to be one of the key challenges as we plan for the rest of the river.

We’re hearing many differing opinions—not only about development, but also about things like the minimum amount of water needed in the river to maintain habitat. All of these disagreements are inputs for our planning effort.

In any planning effort, the bottom line is that you’ve got to get out among the community and be transparent about the potential trade-offs. Then choices can be made about how to go forward. When we’ve done that—brought the groups that are warring with one another together in one room—we’ve often come up with a wonderful compromise. Unusual things that we would never have thought of doing have become possible.

A good example is Tujunga Wash in the East San Fernando Valley. We have a channel there, and for some time, there was basically scorched earth on both sides of the channel. We started hearing about the desire of some community members to traverse this area by pedestrian path. But the residents immediately abutting the area didn’t want anything to do with it; they didn’t want it in their backyards.

We held several community meetings to figure out how to balance safety and flooding issues and the desire for recreational opportunities, and we came away with a one-mile stretch of riverine area with a pedestrian walkway. Ultimately, all the residents who lived along the way asked for gates in their backyards leading into the facility. They adopted it as a linear park in their neighborhood.

It is with great care and great respect that we will be entering communities along the river to understand what we can do to improve their health, environmental quality, recreational opportunities, and safety and security.

Returning to infrastructure, are there particular LA County projects—perhaps funded by Prop 1—that you are prioritizing?

We’re using Prop 1 stormwater money for several Enhanced Watershed Management Plan projects, and a couple of particularly neat ones are in the county unincorporated areas. For example, under the leadership of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, we’re making improvements to Magic Johnson Park that will pull water from the creek and bring it into a cistern under the park, where it will water the landscape.

Prop 1 money is also coming into play for the LA River master plan, as well as some of the projects coming out of the Lower LA River Revitalization Plan. For example, at the confluence of the Rio Hondo and the LA River in South Gate, we’re envisioning a community center where we can educate the public about the river and water resiliency, as well as have gathering space. That’s in the feasibility stage, and we’re seeking to use Prop 1 money to help develop it. 

When we last interviewed you a year ago, you had just taken over as director of the largest public works department in the country. What lessons have you learned in the past year that inform your plans for year two?

I’ve learned some affirming lessons. First, it’s clear to me that public agencies aren’t worth anything unless they have the public’s trust—and my vision is for the Department of Public Works to be the most trusted public agency in the region. With that trust, we’ll be able to do great things for the community and build out the 21st century infrastructure that we envision.

Governance in Los Angeles is so broken up among the 88 cities. If we want to become a world-class destination, we have to collaborate more—both among agencies and with the private sector. Private and public both have a place in the vision for an improved LA. Our short-term goal may be getting ready for the 2028 Olympics, but the long-term vision is to become a metropolis that rivals even Shanghai. Without collaboration across the region, that won’t happen.

To that end, I’ve been reaching out to my business relations. I’ve built great relationships with our partners at LA Metro; the City of Los Angeles and all its bureau chiefs; the major universities; the business community; city engineers; and the Southern California Association of Governments. Making sure that we’re all talking to each other to develop a shared vision for Los Angeles is among the most rewarding parts of my job. We’ve got some great leaders in Los Angeles, right now, who have set out a great vision for the region. I’m happy to be working with them.



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