October 4, 2018 - From the October, 2018 issue

Sup. Sheila Kuehl on Measure W: The Safe, Clean Water Act

In November, Los Angeles County voters will decide on a proposed parcel tax to fund regional infrastructure projects for stormwater capture. Measure W, the “Safe Clean Water Act,” would raise $330 million annually for multi-benefit projects that increase local water supply, clean our drinking water and oceans, and provide green space and recreational opportunities throughout the county—all through a 2.5 cent parcel tax on land that, like concrete, cannot absorb water and therefore generates runoff. In this TPR interview, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl opines on the importance of stormwater capture to a holistic water management strategy for the region and unpacks the details of the measure before LA voters November 6th.


Sheila Kuehl

“The legacy of this measure, should it pass, would be that we established for the future a secure, clean, and safe water supply.” - Sheila Kuehl

More than 18 months ago, you unveiled plans to develop a funding measure for neighborhood stormwater capture programs throughout Los Angeles County. In November, Measure W—a parcel tax to raise money for projects to capture and clean stormwater—will appear on the ballot. Why have you devoted so much time and leadership to Measure W? 

Sheila Kuehl: There are many reasons LA County must recycle, capture, and reuse stormwater. Climate change is a primary reason. We’re already seeing more extreme weather, and it will only get more extreme. We’re also looking at more serious drought, flooding, and wildfires. We need to capture more water when it does rain to prepare for future droughts.

Two thirds of our current water supply is imported. We may not be able to count on that water forever.

We need to diversify our water supply and stormwater capture is a big part of that. Right now, we capture and store enough runoff from homes and gutters to meet the annual needs of about 1 million LA County residents. That’s 10 percent of our population, which is pretty good. But we also lose or waste 100 billion gallons of water a year. With Measure W, we could capture enough water to meet the annual needs of another 2 million residents.

The third reason is clean water. The water that runs down our curbs picks up trash and toxins and runs out into the ocean. As a result, our beaches and ocean are often filthy after a heavy rain. That’s a public health problem: We estimate that as many as 1.5 million people every year get sick from water contamination at LA beaches.

Under the Clean Water Act, local government is required to clean up that water, but

Los Angeles County has 88 cities and 200 water agencies. Each is required to address clean water, but it would be inefficient, and ultimately ineffective, to have each one of them try to do it alone, so Measure W is a regional approach. That’s why the county took this on, and why cities support the effort.

Measure W funding will focus on multi-benefit projects, which means projects that not only improve water quality and water supply, but also provide green spaces, recreational opportunities, and other kinds of community amenities that improve quality of life and public health.

Share how Measure W became a parcel tax of 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable surface in collaboration with the County Department of Public Works, your fellow supervisors, and other stakeholders. 

We took 2016’s Measure A, which funded parks around the county, as our model. It was a collaborative and transparent model, and even those who don’t support the measure have complimented us on our community process.

We had 16 meetings of a very large and diverse stakeholder advisory committee that included, not only water districts, but also water activists, community members, cities, businesses, labor, environmental organizations, school districts, and neighborhood councils. We held more than 1,000 meetings and workshops and collected over 1,500 surveys.

We wanted to educate people about the fact that Los Angeles is super reliant on water from Northern California and the Colorado River. These sources may not be able to supply as much water over the next decades as they once did, and we’ll likely have to pay a lot more for that water if the Delta tunnels are built. Water from the Colorado is also becoming ever more saline and metallic, and more difficult to mix into our local supply. So, we needed a local water measure to secure our local water supply.

These conversations with communities all over the County led us to decide that, rather than imposing a fee for stormwater projects, we would opt for a parcel tax. We chose a parcel tax because the issue of stormwater runoff varies by area in our county. We set the tax at 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable surface so that if you’ve converted your patio from concrete to a garden, for example, you won’t pay because it doesn’t produce runoff.

Measure W also allows for exemptions for low-income seniors and any property owners who qualify for ad valorem welfare exemptions (including many religious institutions and non-profit organizations). Public properties, like public schools, are constitutionally exempt.

Given that the parcel tax only applies to permittable land that stormwater cannot filter through—such as concrete patios—will it actually raise enough money to fund the water projects mandated by the federal government? 

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Measure W will raise about $330 million a year for projects which will move us a major step in the right direction. Right now, the federal government has estimated that the total cost of LA County’s water quality obligations could be much higher—as high as $20 billion.

That’s why we did not put a sunset on this tax. We know that we will have to keep building projects in each watershed, each city, and in the unincorporated areas until we have recycled, reused, and recharged our groundwater as much as we possibly can, plus we will have to maintain the projects over time.

Elaborate on some of the potential projects that would be funded by Measure W. 

The city of LA and the city of Long Beach have developed fairly comprehensive lists of their priority stormwater projects for the next five years, and even begun to work on a few. The County has also made a list. Other cities have not been able to develop a list because it takes seed money to conduct the engineering studies needed. You can see all the current proposed projects at www.safecleanwaterla.org/projects.

One interesting and important example of the types of projects to be funded by Measure W is the Mulholland project in unincorporated LA County. The project diverts urban and stormwater runoff from local communities along Mulholland Highway. Currently, this runoff flows into Malibu Creek.  If Measure W passes, the project will keep polluted water from running into Malibu Creek and into the ocean; and it will use capture and clean that water so it can be a new source of water to irrigate parks in the area. 

The Board of Supervisors’ vote to put Measure W on the ballot was 4-1. One concern of the only Supervisor to oppose was that after Measure M and Measure H, voters would not welcome another regional tax or fee responsibility. Why do you think the voters, as generous as they’ve been, will embrace another tax?

We are not imposing a tax. We’re listening to voters. People are worried about water. They are expressing concern to us about the health of the ocean and runoff at the beaches. They are concerned about water quality and about the drought, and about the increasing number of wild fires. So, we are asking voters to tax themselves just a little in order to address these concerns.

LA County residents are also excited about the jobs that will be created by this effort. These projects must be built and they will be built by local workers.

Also on the November ballot is an $8.9 billion state water bond. Is the county’s stormwater measure aligned with the state’s proposed bond? Is there any redundancy?

The state water bond provides very little money for stormwater, only $400 million statewide. Even if all that money were coming to LA County, it wouldn’t begin to modernize our water system. Plus, the state water bond can’t be used for operations and maintenance.

At the County, we’re planning for the future. We need to modernize our water system, by building projects to capture, clean and store stormwater. Those projects will require funding in order to be operated and maintained. There is no sense building the projects if we don’t have the money to operate them!

Lastly, should Measure W be successful, what do you hope the legacy of this countywide regional stormwater measure will be?

The legacy will be cleaner water, a more secure water supply for the county, greener infrastructure, and cleaner oceans and beaches. Our goal is to become a sustainable region.  Water is a big piece of that.

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