June 25, 2018 - From the June, 2018 issue

Adi Liberman on Lessons Learned from Prop O, LA City’s 2004 Clean Water Bond Program

As the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors debates whether to include the Safe, Clean Water program stormwater capture parcel tax on the November ballot, ​TPR ​sat down with one of the environmental leaders that started the move to 'green' Southern California's infrastructure. In 2004, city of Los Angeles voters approved Proposition O, a Clean Water Bond that funded pollution cleanup from stormwater. Adi Liberman helped draft and then Co-Chaired the Proposition O Citizens Oversight Advisory Committee, which prioritized how $500 million was to be spent to address the city of LA's water pollution issues. Here, he looks back on the lessons learned during the 14 years of the program and highlights some of the proposition's many successful projects. He also explains the advancements in civl engineering during the last decade, and how the city's 2004 commitment to stakeholder buy-in could aid the county's measure in capturing more of the approximate 100 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the annual needs of 2 million people—that flow out to the ocean every year. 


Adi Liberman

"Prop O succeeded beyond expectations because it demonstrated that thousands of tons of pollution per year could be kept from our beaches and local waters through green infrastructure projects that provided additional benefits, such as making more open space accessible to the public and capturing for use water that otherwise would have flowed out to the ocean...As Prop O was the largest program of its kind in the county, we have been able to use this money to experiment and learn about how to push the needle further." - Adi Liberman, Co-Chair, Prop O Citizen’s Oversight Commission

Prop O, a City of LA 2004 clean water bond, funded a half billion dollars of stormwater projects. As someone who has played a leadership role in both crafting and implementing Prop O, former LADWP GM Ron Deaton laid out criteria for measuring O’s success. He said, people should view “the quality and creativity of our projects to devote stormwater to more productive issues” as the right metric. Fourteen years later, how well has the City done with its ‘Prop O’ clean water project investments?  

Adi Liberman: Yes. Prop O’s successes are beyond what we expected. Back in 2004, Mary Nichols and I were the co-chairs of the Prop O campaign. There was no precedent of passing a measure of this size to curb water pollution. We soon realized that were involved in what would become the region’s largest application of “green infrastructure” – which means using techniques that mimic nature to solve water pollution problems.   The measure itself called for a citizens oversight committee. I joined that committee in 2007.

Prop O succeeded beyond expectations because there was a lot that was unknown a decade ago about stormwater and green infrastructure projects. One of those questions was whether these natural systems would reduce enough pollution at a reasonable cost. The City of Los Angeles also set out to prove the value of doing multiple-benefit projects—not only cleaning up water pollution, but also creating recreational space and habitat to slow down the flow. We all figured out that with proper planning, we could capture water that could recharge aquifers and benefit our groundwater supplies. 

Recently, the Prop O Lessons Learned Report was released. Summarize what the City and region gained from its investments in stormwater infrastructure?

In the first half of the last century, our regional water capture systems have been designed to race rainwater out to the ocean as fast as possible. These concrete flood channels succeeded in controlling the disastrous floods that plagued Los Angeles, but our system’s design turned out to be a highway for sending untreated pollution out to the ocean. Everything that washed through our streets ended up in our oceans: motor oil, pesticides, fertilizers, and trash.

Federal and state laws evolved over the years regarding clean water and today requires those pollutants to be cleaned up. The question in 2004 was: how do you update a 150-year-old infrastructure system to curb pollution while still achieving the goals of flood control.

The Prop O bond program invested money to clean pollution from local beach, lakes, and streams. We learned from our investments that the best way to achieve results is to slow down the flow of stormwater’s movement toward the ocean. Having the water infiltrate and percolate to recreate wetlands proved that you could have water naturally treated and put back into the ground to replenish the water supply. The co-benefit was creating recreational space that inspired more outdoor family activity and healthy place making.

Expand on what the city learned from its Prop O program. 

First, there is a long history of City planning and relying on conventional water infrastructure. Los Angeles knows how to build traditional sewage plans and concrete stormwater flood control channels. They work, but they do little to make our regional more livable. Yes, they manage floods, but who doesn’t also see these concrete channels as eyesores that attract trash dumping and graffiti?

In 2004, we offered voters a new approach for addressing water pollution – create living systems that also reduced pollution. For example, look at Echo Park Lake. For decades, polluted runoff from nearby neighborhoods flowed into the lake and settled onto the lake bottom. Prop O funds helped restore the lake’s health by removing polluted sediment, reshaping the flow of water in the lake and replanting the lake as nature might have done so itself.  Insects, invertebrates and other fauna returned to the setting. The combined system introduced beneficial bacteria. In an environment with slow moving water, the plants, animals, and organisms all work together to digest or otherwise capture pollutants. The water that leaves Echo Park Lake is now much cleaner than the water entering the lake, removing about 6,000 pounds of pollutants and year and reducing bacterial pollution by 99%. Meanwhile, the community benefits from a newly restored park in a much healthier and enjoyable setting.

Second, we learned how to better talk with communities as we planned and implemented the projects together. The importance of explaining the projects with the community helped us create better projects because we understood community needs.

For example, at Fairfax and Washington, Prop O funds facilitated the creation of the first artificial wetlands. The community at first was really concerned about mosquitos breeding, West Nile virus, and kids drowning in the water. Therefore, we went back and redesigned some of the aspects of the project. Now, it is a rain garden instead of a wetlands system that still accomplishes the same goals. The community buy-in worked incredibly well. And it captures about 150 acre feet of water per year – enough to supply the water needs of 300 homes – that was previously allowed to flow to the ocean.

We also learned that organizations need a variety of approaches to achieve Prop O’s multi-purpose goals, to not only slow the flow of water down so it can be naturally treated and infiltrated, but also other successes.

For example, we installed about 70,000 trap-door devices on catch basins (the opening in the streets that drain stormwater). These trap doors are closed most of the year, preventing trash and other pollutants from getting into the stormwater drain and making it easy for street sweepers to gather it all up. When it does rain, the spring doors on the devices open up and let the rainwater flow through. This was a mechanical approach. By putting 70,000 trap doors around the region, we helped remove 1,800 tons of trash from flowing onto our beaches each year.

We also replumbed our system so that some stormwater would be sent to our sewage treatment plant during drier months of the year. Contaminated water could now be treated and processed to clean water, rather than putting it straight out to the beach. I can think of 20-25 different approaches that were taken to achieve all of our projects.

Speak to the policy challenge of assessing the value of these multiple benefit infrastructure projects.

It was easy to assess some results, such as the tons of pollution prevented or the acre-feet of water recaptured. Much harder was measuring the value to the community of updating an old park like Machado Lake Park in Harbor City. Residents were using the park before we restored it, but the lake was quite polluted and setting looked ragged. As we spent more than $100 million of dollars rebuilding and cleaning the lake, we were also able to rebuild the recreation facility from the ground up, updating everything from the picnic areas to the fishing pier.

But how do you measure the value of a healthier and more attractive Lake Machado to the community? We know that the number of people going to the park has dramatically increased. And we know this is taking place in a location—next to Watts, Wilmington, and other port communities—that have historically not been served by adequate park services. My hope is that over time, we can develop better techniques for measuring the value that parks and open space play in creating the vibrant parks that build community.

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Did you observe, over the course of the Prop O program, any improvement in how government agencies and engineering firms captured and treated stormwater?

The idea of green infrastructure has been one of the few huge new ideas that the engineering and design communities have been working on over the last decade. Private firms, who competed to take on these green infrastructure projects, built most of the Prop O projects. We relied on those firms to develop how to undertake green infrastructure projects.

As Prop O was the largest program of its kind in the county, we have been able to use this money to experiment and learn about how to push the needle further. Then, these firms are able to export these technologies and lessons to other places in the state, country, and world.

The Bureau of Engineering, Sanitation, and all of the other agencies in local government have come a long way. Ten years ago, we had theories about applying green infrastructure, but didn’t have a lot of physical projects built out to learn from.

Prop O gave us the chance to see what worked.  For example, we redesigned a city street so the water flowed towards the green median parkway. To do that on a street, you have to get the pipe just right, the layer of crushed rock so the water could infiltrate into the ground, and how cars would react. But how large does the pipe need to be? 3 inches in diameter? 6 inches? We learned a number of practical lessons.

We learned a lot about how to install cisterns in our parks, and now our city teaches other cities how to implement cisterns. We learned by doing.

In addition to project successes, were there any instructive failures?

One aspect of the learning process is to understand the role of the stakeholders. The leads on this program were the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Bureau of Sanitation. These two city bureaus are primarily charged with designing and administering public stormwater infrastructure projects.

The Prop O Citizens Committee wanted to expand on collaboration. We thus reached out to the Department of Parks and Recreation, Water and Power, and the Department of Transportation. We wanted to both partner with them and improve their ability to address pollution issues.

One of our projects with the city’s parks department was the Mar Vista Recreation Center. A big reason we did the project was to afford Parks and Recreation an opportunity to manage existing and build new parks to both provide recreation and treat and capture runoff. We also partnered with the Zoo and Parks to redesign the entire parking lot at the Los Angeles Zoo. Instead of a hard asphalt surface where rainwater picks up all of the oil and antifreeze from cars, it now is a permeable surface that allows rainwater to infiltrate the ground.  These city agencies, as a result, now know a lot more about how to implement and manage these green infrastructure projects, and can incorporate, without reliance on Prop 0, their experience into future project planning.

When Prop O was crafted, it included a series of built in safe guards to provide assurance to the voters that bond proceeds were used appropriately. As Ron Deaton noted in 2006, Prop O had an administrative oversight committee that included the CAO, Budget Office, CLA, Mayor’s Office, Board of Public Works, and a citizen’s oversight committee, of which you co-chaired for more than a decade. Did that layered oversight work to improve the investment outcomes?

An oversight process that brought different people together and fostered collaboration ultimately meant we adopted a unique and new series of rules that were implemented over time. They weren’t spelled out in the measure or in any city law, but by virtue of holding regular meetings where we had the oversight commission, relevant agency engineers and implementers, city council representatives, deputy city attorneys, and members of the public, our measures of oversight evolved to be more holistic in our review of the project proposals.

At the beginning, our process was a little bit clunky. We would make recommendations that would go to the city council and mayor’s office to have ultimate approval. Sometimes it took longer than we wanted to agree on criteria or metrics, and sometimes it took a couple hearings to get a project understood. How much weight do you give pollution protection in comparison to creating public open space for enjoying contributing to water supply? There was nothing in the measure that gave us criteria, so we developed it as we built the rules of the road.

But it was a willingness to show goodwill and work together. Ultimately, people look at this program as one that empowered people to get involved.

This summer, the county board of supervisors will decide whether to put a new Safe Clean Water measure to address stormwater capture on the November 2018 ballot. What does it say about the success of Prop O that the county measures openly builds on the City’s early success?

We learned so much from implementing actual projects, some with the County as a partner, that we would be foolish not to call on the expertise already present in the City of Los Angeles, the private sector engineering and design firms that were selected to implement the program, and those who were involved in Prop O oversight.

I also hope that the County looks at the way that the City worked with all kinds of stakeholders. There was virtually no opposition, even from tax watchdog organizations. We worked hard to design a measure that worked for taxpayers, who are footing the bill; the agencies, who is responsible for the program; the environmental groups, who serve as the watchdogs; and most importantly, the public. It meant we had to make compromised and, of we course, we had to explain to ordinary residents and business about what the funds were going towards, so everyone can see the benefits.  The proof of our efforts was that at the end of the day, election day of course, it passed with 78 percent of the vote and I’m convinced that it did so because it worked for all the different stakeholders. 

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.