February 25, 2019 - From the February, 2019 issue

Jack Baylis: A How to Guide for Capturing LA’s Wet Weather in a Changing Climate

After years of continued drought, this winter has proven a particularly wet one for California. February alone brought 18 trillion gallons of rain—nearly half the water in Lake Tahoe—and caused at least $14 million in damage to roads and highways throughout the state. As Southern California and Los Angeles in particular reevaluate their historic approaches to water management—moving toward stormwater capture, integrated treatment, and habitat restoration—TPR interviewed veteran water maven Jack Baylis to assess what progress has been made on adapting policies to our changing climate. Stressing the need for collaborative governance and wise financing, Baylis also addresses the LA River revitalization and outlines a long-term governance plan for investments to increase use of local recycled water in the southern half of the state.


Jack Baylis

"It's key for policymakers to get together to figure out a structure that deploys Measure W and state funding in the short term and also sustains itself in the long-term." —Jack Bayils

California has seen sizable rainfall this winter, with Downtown Los Angeles receiving 12.91 inches of rain since October alone—167 percent above average for this time of year. How much of this rain did we actually capture to benefit Southern California?

Jack Baylis: This year is what we call a “wet year.” If you look at the last 100 years of rainfall in Los Angeles, you’ll see that we average 10-14 inches a year, and then every four to six years, we have one or two wet years like this one, where we get 20-40 inches or more.

Now, as to the benefit: We are capturing as much as we usually do during our wet years, including infiltration into our groundwater basins, but we’re not capturing all we could—we’re far short, in fact. Most of the rainwater we get in wet years—as well as the wastewater that comes from our homes and businesses year-round—is put into storm drains or infiltrated into sewers, sent to treatment plants (if in the separate sewer system), and then mostly discharged to the ocean.

This system dates back more than 100 years. In the 1930s, flooding during a very wet year killed hundreds of people whose homes were built along the banks of the LA River. This had happened in previous years as well, but the ’30s flood prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come here and begin channelizing the river. After 20 years, we ended up with the famed concrete channels we still have today.

As LA’s population grew, we began building more highways and road—that is, more and more concrete around the region—and flooding in those areas increased. To deal with that, we built a very efficient flood control system, consisting of more than a dozen debris control dams above Los Angeles, in addition to many concrete channels.

The problem was that we didn’t recognize how valuable water was; all we thought about was getting it away from the population and into the ocean. And once we started sending our own local water to the ocean, and our population continued to rise, we had to find other sources of water to actually use. William Mulholland and others found sources outside of LA, which we started bringing into LA through the various aqueducts. And today, Los Angeles imports over 80 percent of our water supply.

What are the trends in water management today and going forward?

Five very interesting things are happening today.

First of all, we have incredible leadership—at the city of Los Angeles, with Mayor Garcetti; at the county, with Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas; at the Metropolitan Water District, with Jeff Kightlinger; and at the state, with Governor Newsom. These are people who really think about water.

In 2014, Mayor Garcetti made the courageous decision to set a target of importing only 50 percent of our water supply by 2032. That changes our whole model: Instead of rushing rainwater out and importing most of our water, we need to start using a lot more local water.

This is part of the reason we’re moving our water quality treatments plants—the engines that turn wastewater into clean water—toward a zero discharge model, where all water is recycled and no treated water is dumped into the ocean. You saw that with Mayor Garcetti’s announcement last week that LA will recycle 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035.

Instead of discharging 500+ million gallons of water into the ocean every day, we want to capture that water, treat it to a higher quality, and use it as part of our water system. The great thing about this plan is that it doesn’t require any new infrastructure; we already have plants that treat wastewater and stormwater.

The two largest plants in the LA area are the Sanitation Districts’ Joint Plant at Carson and the city’s Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant. Based on water use at the time, both were designed and built for an average dry weather flow (ADWF) of over 400 million gallons per day. However, thanks to leadership on water conservation by leaders like Mayor Garcetti, LA residents have reduced water use to the point where each plant is treating an average of only 200-250 million gallons per day. In other words, those plants have significant excess capacity. There’s availability to treat approximately 100 percent more water at each plant.

Furthermore, right now, Los Angeles—like most of the West—has separate collection systems for stormwater and wastewater. The water that flows into the plants includes stormwater that "infiltrates and inflows" (I/I) into the system; however, it does not include the stormflows that flow straight into the storm drains that go to the river channels and ocean. However, the East Coast, as well as some older cities like Seattle and San Francisco, have combined sewer systems (CSOs), which take both wastewater and stormwater to the same treatment centers. So, it’s proven that this can work. In Los Angeles, there’s no reason that—with careful planning, design, and construction—we couldn’t soon start blending wet weather stormwater into wastewater, and sending all of it to be treated at the Carson and Hyperion plants.

This is a viable solution. It couldn’t be done overnight; it would be a gradual process over the next five to 10 years. If we built equalization tanks to store water upstream from our major plants (and plan-design-construct to store the water for five to 10 years), and then started linking the storm drains to the sewer collection systems, we could get Carson and Hyperion running seven days a week, 365 days a year, at full capacity.

In the meantime, until the CSO is constructed, we could start with the low-hanging fruit—that is, storing the wet weather stormwater in our existing infrastructure. The LA River and Ballona Creek are our largest opportunities here. We could put up the inflatable dams, fill the LA River up with water, and then slowly move that water into the blending equalization tanks to initially clean and store the water prior to putting it into Hyperion or Joint Plant.  The significant initial water treatment in the river and creek from the sun and wind is important to note here, especially for Measure W funding. Cascading waterfalls in the river would improve water quality, as well as being visually appealing to folks working, living, and enjoying life along the river.

Eventually, we would want to build more tunnels so that we could store significant amounts of water underground, like many desert communities do. Then we would treat it at Hyperion, Carson, Tillman, Terminal Island, and the dozen other treatment plants in the area that have excess capacity.

The takeaway here is that we don’t have to build new water quality treatment engines—we already have them. We just have to get the flow into them, and then be patient enough to blend it over years, rather than trying to do it all in one year. I believe we must optimize our existing infrastructure before we build more.  

Once we are convinced we can execute this vision for Hyperion and Carson, where and how do we move all that water? 

That’s for the next interview!

Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece on why Southern California does not capture more rainfall, mostly talking about public safety and avoiding flooding. How do we get to your outlined goal?

First, we need to thank the leaders of our flood control districts for doing the hard work of protecting us from heavy rains and stormwater. People forget about how dangerous big storms have been to Los Angeles, because our flood control districts have been so effective over the past half-century.

We need to smartly start with some small projects to build up these wet weather successes. There are examples from around the globe, such as in Singapore and Arizona, that have demonstrated ways to capture wet weather and ensure public safety.

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What do these projects look like? For example, they could be a couple tunnels that divert water to the upstream equalization tanks before they reach Carson or Hyperion. Over time, this could create significant storage that can be blended in to the Carson and Hyperion engines. Ultimately, the goal is to run both plants at full capacity: 24/7/365 at 450 million gallons per day. 

For reference: The Downtown Los Angeles historical seasonal rainfall chart, 1877-2018. Credit: LAAlmanac.com

What’s in the way of that happening—especially now, as the city of LA leads efforts to revitalize the LA River, and after LA County has passed Measure W to fund infrastructure for stormwater management? 

I often say: Good policy precedes good planning precedes good plumbing. And all of that requires financing.

Both financing and governance are challenges today. There are multiple jurisdictions that have claim to the river and to the region’s stormwater. But rather than having the river revitalization split among all these multipurpose agencies, I believe that the best solution is to create some kind of river authority, managed like a Joint Powers Authority, in which all the entities with some jurisdiction over the river have a say. We need a single-purpose authority doing the planning, design, and construction.

This was a problem I saw with LA Metro’s Measure R, and now Measure M, for example. Those dollars are being given to people and agencies with multiple other operational and capital project responsibilities. That often means that the funding is not used as efficiently as it would be by someone whose only focus is those dollars. You want to give funding for capital projects to an entity focused only on that project—and when the capital project is over, you close that entity down.

If we created such an entity for the river, I think the level of authority given to each jurisdiction would have to be bifurcated between issues of financing and issues of water use. On the water use side, cities would need some say in how they put reclaimed water in the river or how they pull it out. On the financing side, LA County would have to have more say in how Measure W funds are used, because that money applies to the whole county, not just the river.

As an aside, it’s a stipulation in Measure W that funds can only be used for treatment that improves water quality. Now, the river does provide a degree of natural water treatment, just from the sunlight and the wind. So, I would make the argument that the river is the beginning of the process train for water quality improvement—especially if that train ends at a treatment plant—and that it should qualify for funding under Measure W.

Just as there are multiple jurisdictions along the river, there are also multiple pots of funding available. For example, besides Measure W, Assemblymember Anthony Rendon has also found state money for the Lower LA River. There is ample opportunity for Governor Newsom or Asm. Rendon to leverage state funding—such as cap-and-trade funding in disadvantaged communities— with Measure W funding to maximize existing infrastructure and improve green infrastructure along all of the diverse LA River communities. Again, you need good governance and preferably a Joint Powers Authority to consolidate and then distribute that money wisely—looking at where you can get the most bang for your buck.

In my view, Hyperion and Tillman are where you can get the most bang for your buck—that is, the most water flow treated for the lowest cost. We have a lot of Watershed Management Programs and Enhanced Watershed Management Programs that are good projects, but some of them are pretty minor and would take a long time to pay off. Diverting more flow to Hyperion and Carson would get us a bigger return on our investment.

The old saying in California is that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” What are the challenges to achieving good water governance here, given all the public and private interests at play?

I honestly think that if we get Governor Newsom, Supervisors Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas, Metropolitan's Jeff Kightlinger, and Mayor Garcetti together, that’s the beginning of a good governance structure right there. They won’t solve these problems overnight, but it’s not about short-term wins—it’s about long-term results. It’s key for policymakers to get together to figure out a structure that deploys Measure W and state funding in the short term and also sustains itself in the long-term.

What’s beautiful about Measure W is that it provides capital funding—the near term—as well as operational and maintenance funding in perpetuity. We have to build structures wisely and always look for the biggest bang for our buck. We have to optimize getting the most water for the most people and we have to be sure to equitably distribute that water. That should be mandate of a regional Joint Powers Authority—the kind of policymaking that was used in our state constitution.

You were part of the leadership organizing the Water Charrette at the VerdeXchange 2019 Conference—a collaboration among public agencies and engineering firms on managing stormwater and moving water efficiently around the county. Share some of the outcomes from that collaboration.

We began with Sheila Kuehl’s deputy, Katy Young, mapping out the issues that inspired Measure W and how to follow that mandate. We also heard from LA County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella talked about and LA Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero. These are all great leaders that understand the LA River and water usage.

A number of findings and opportunities became clear during the charrette. First: We have the right leadership to solve this. Second: We have existing sewage and stormwater infrastructure that we can use—we just have to upgrade it. Third: Between Measure W and the state, we have the money.

Fourth: The LA River should be the spine of our system. It’s a great opportunity because of the incoming commercial development that could be taxed in perpetuity—provided that we preserve Frogtown and avoid another Battle of Chavez Ravine. The LA River could become, not only a source of high-quality water, but a beautiful “emerald necklace”—and Los Angeles, like many great cities, could have a great river.

One of the lingering ideas that needs more consideration is how to capture value from the commercial opportunities along LA River. Whether the funds come from developers paying a river tax (via the overseeing authority or agency) or some type of model, there must be a mechanism that reinvests funds into the existing river communities and the overall future of water management.

At VerdeXchange 2020, what indices would you use to measure how far we’ve progressed toward the vision you’ve shared?

VerdeXchange has been a brilliant forum for the right leadership to come together. It’s helped create some of these opportunities. We’ve come a long way on water in 10 years, and now we’re at the beginning of a giant change because of our political leadership, who often come together VerdeXchange.

The index I would use is the equitable distribution of the highest value of water. What’s great about Los Angeles is that LADWP and Metropolitan deliver water to everybody at the same low rate. If we kept that mandate for equitable distribution along the river—creating, not a Lexus lane, but a lane for all users—everyone could enjoy the benefits of a wonderful river and a high-quality water supply. That would help Los Angeles continue to be a great city.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.