Billions of gallons of stormwater from Los Angeles flow unimpeded into the ocean each year, contaminating beaches and devastating marine wildlife. If properly cleaned, this stormwater represents a viable and under-leveraged source of local water for a county currently importing 60 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away.
Angelenos will vote Tuesday on Measure W, a parcel tax of 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable space on private property. If approved, the measure would generate an estimated $300 million dollars to collect and clean up stormwater. According to the Los Angeles Times, the average single-family house would pay $83 dollars annually.
While opponents worry the measure imposes an unreasonably heavy burden on taxpayers, proponents argue modernizing Los Angeles’ aging water infrastructure is necessary to prepare for future extreme weather events – like droughts, wildfires and flooding – which are likely to increase in frequency in coming decades because of climate change.
“Climate change and increasing water scarcity have already severely impacted the water systems Los Angeles relies on,” said Mark Gold, the associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA.
Critical water sources – such as the Colorado River, which has experienced years of drought – are under extreme stress. This problem is only going to intensify as global warming continues.
Research conducted on the Sierra Nevada snowpack by UCLA climate scientists Alex Hall and Neil Berg, another critical source of water for California, illustrates the negative impact of human-induced warming thus far and predicts devastating consequences in future decades as emissions continue. Hall and Berg’s findings suggest during the California drought between 2011 and 2015, human-induced climate change reduced average snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevadas by 25 percent. Their report predicts future declines of 60 to 85 percent, depending on emission levels.
The result of reduced snowpack could be a delay in the peak flows of water-supplying rivers, an outcome that could severely impact flood control systems, water infrastructure and riparian species such as Chinook salmon.
This comes at a time when the Los Angeles metropolis continues to grow. Los Angeles County will add up to another 1 million residents by 2035, making the need for water-sourcing strategies even more pressing.
The city of Los Angeles recognizes the need to transition away from imported water. In its first-ever Sustainable City pLAn, Mayor Eric Garcetti set a goal of transitioning the city to 50 percent local water by 2035, in contrast to the 12 percent today. The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge at UCLA has set forth a more ambitious goal of transitioning the county to 100 percent local water by 2050.
Gold, who leads Sustainable LA, said achieving 100 percent locally sourced water is possible, with stormwater capture and usage being an essential piece of the puzzle. On an average rainfall year, 270,000 acre-feet of stormwater flows through the Los Angeles River into the ocean – equivalent to approximately half of the water Angelenos use annually.
That’s an important statistic to consider. Not only are Los Angeles’ distant water sources dwindling, but imported water also constitutes a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. The delivery, treatment and use of water represent 18 to 20 percent of California’s energy consumption. Research conducted by a team led by UCLA professor Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities, suggests local water supplies like captured stormwater are far more energy efficient than imported water.
Creating an alternative source of water for a growing metropolis is not the only challenge Measure W addresses: Los Angeles County and its 88 cities are poised to pay hefty fines in coming years for violations of the Clean Water Act, a federal law that directs cities to clean up water before discharging it into local systems. Sheila Kuehl, a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors representative, said all cities in the county have been unable to adequately address water quality issues due to a lack of funding.
“If Los Angeles County fails to pass Measure W, litigation due to Clean Water Act violations is very likely,” Gold added.
The alternative to paying millions in fines is to build the infrastructure necessary for Los Angeles to comply with federally mandated water quality standards. Besides, per Gold, 90 percent of funds generated within a given subwatershed under the measure would stay in those communities. Disadvantaged communities, which are often sidelined from the benefits of environmental projects, would receive a boost in funds for infrastructure. Not to mention, there would be thousands of green jobs where local workers could build, operate and maintain stormwater projects.
Passing Measure W is not going to transform polluted stormwater into clean drinking water overnight. The measure does, however, create a funding source for building the infrastructure necessary to accelerate the transition away from imported water while improving the health and safety of our beaches and safeguarding aquatic ecosystems.
That’s a cause worth Angelenos’ $83 a year.
Zilliac is fourth-year history student.