Progress on L.A. County stormwater capture program slowing

Just a few weeks ago, Angelenos watched as trillions of liters of valuable rainwater flowed into the region’s concrete watercourses, slid over slippery pavements and were flushed into the sea. After so many months of drought-related water restrictions, it seemed like a missed opportunity to many.

While officials say they’re making progress toward capturing more of the county’s stormwater, a new report from the monitoring group Los Angeles Waterkeeper focuses on the plan’s hitherto sluggish progress and calls for improved metrics and a more proactive approach, among other recommendations.

The Safe Clean Water Program — passed by Los Angeles County voters as Measure W in 2018 — allocates $280 million annually to projects aimed at capturing and cleaning stormwater as it falls. This includes reducing the amount of asphalt and hardscape that now prevents water from seeping into the soil.

But three years later, only 30 acres of new green space have been added under the program, the report says. Los Angeles County covers approximately 3 million acres.

“For the most part, what you’re seeing is a series of really small to medium-sized projects that aren’t really moving the needle in terms of meeting water quality standards or water supply,” said Mark Gold, director of Water Scarcity Solutions for the Natural Resource Defense Council. “This lack of strategic vision – and how we’re actually going to get there – is something that’s incredibly worrying.”

The LA Waterkeeper report focuses on the Safe Clean Water regional program, which includes 85 cities and unincorporated areas in the county’s flood control district. The program awards projects mainly through a competitive grant process, but applications for such projects have slowed in the first three years and approved projects are getting smaller, the report says.

That’s likely because the initial spate of applications consisted largely of shovel-ready projects that just needed funding, said Bruce Reznik, executive director of LA Waterkeeper. Once this backlog was cleared, proposals shifted to other projects at slower stages of development.

“They hit a lot of the low hanging fruit and that makes perfect sense for our position,” Reznik said. “But the lack of hardscape removal is definitely troubling, and it’s noticeable.”

In fact, the best way to capture more rainwater — and prevent more polluted water from entering the ocean — is to increase green space, the report says. Soil and other permeable surfaces act as natural filters for toxins, allowing rainwater to seep into the ground, replenishing the pools that form the basis of local water supplies.

Currently, much of the county, including most rivers, streams, and streams, is lined with concrete to drain water, including about 80% of the runoff from each rainfall. That’s a boon for flood control, but not so much for stormwater collection.

Reznik and others championing Measure W praised the county for getting the massive program off the ground, but said its next phase could benefit from a more proactive approach that relies less on the cumbersome grant application process , which may favor larger facilities with more resources .

“It makes a lot of sense that we need to think about individual projects and how to make them great, but we also need to think about how those projects are interconnected across the county,” said Lauren Ahkiam, co-chair of the regional program oversight committee .

Of the 101 infrastructure projects funded in the program’s first three years, 64 were from cities — including 18 from Los Angeles — and 20 from unincorporated areas of LA County, the report said. Only 17 came from other entities, such as watershed groups and NGOs.

There is also the challenge of working in the built environment of the region. For example, it is easier to improve an existing park than to find space for a new one, which means acquiring new land, rehabilitating an open area that might suffer from some type of contamination, also known as a brownfield site, or another larger one Area might include efforts.

“Perhaps there is a lack of creativity in simply going back to proven park retrofit projects,” says Reznik. “They’re good projects — a lot of these parks have had to be rehabilitated — but we just can’t do just that.”

According to the report, 41 of the 101 projects concerned the rehabilitation of existing parks. Only three were new parks.

Some aspects of the program are working, however, and the report identifies around 20 projects that it considers exemplary. One such project, Urban Orchard, transformed a brownfield site in South Gate into an 8-acre park that helps capture and treat stormwater along the LA River.

Another, the Rory M. Shaw Wetlands Park Project in Sun Valley, will convert a 46-acre landfill into a wetland park capable of collecting rainwater. The project will collect 32,351 acre-feet of water per year, or enough to support approximately 356,000 residents of 80 gallons or less per day. The wetlands will also incorporate native vegetation and create a habitat for wildlife in the region.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to do – especially in the school sector. Many Los Angeles schools are covered in asphalt, including campuses in polluted and park-poor communities. This can contribute to an urban heat island effect, which is both dangerous for students and useless for water harvesting.

But only one in 10 proposals submitted by the Los Angeles Unified School District secured funding from the Safe Clean Water Program, the report said, and that project was later withdrawn.

Ahkiam said that because LAUSD is one of the region’s largest landowners, schools represent a “real opportunity” for stormwater harvesting, but legal and bureaucratic hurdles and stretched resources make it difficult to get some of that work off the ground.

“There’s a good opportunity to share this information – so that different cities understand what’s possible, and different parts of the public understand what rainwater collection can look like and how it can be integrated into so much of our infrastructure,” she says.

Some schools have taken advantage of the offer. Jackson Elementary in Altadena worked with the nonprofit Amigos de los Rios to secure funding to remove 21,000 square feet of asphalt and concrete. In its place, they installed planters, bioswales, and permeable paving to improve drainage and conserve water.

“Each school is a microcosm of the greater watershed,” said Claire Robinson, executive director of Amigos de los Rios. “It’s very motivating when students transform their own campus and learn in real time what it means to monitor and protect water quality.”

Despite these possibilities, the report notes that the lack of clear metrics and definitions for evaluating projects has led to uncertainty about some outcomes. While 92 of the 101 regional projects funded in the first three rounds offer some water supply benefits, it is unclear if and when all of these benefits will be fully realized.

In addition, a consistent approach can make some projects more difficult to get approved as the same criteria do not always make sense in different watersheds. Infrastructure projects, for example, must achieve 60 points according to a formula that takes into account the benefits of water quality, water supply and other factors in order to be eligible.

Reznik said he would like to see more funding used to improve outreach, education, community engagement and staff development — aspects of the program that have yet to be “rolled out in a comprehensive manner.”

He hoped the release of the report, which comes after the big storms in January and ahead of a biennial review by the regional oversight committee, could help shape the next chapter of the work.

“This is actually a really good time for us to take a deep breath, look back at what we have achieved and how we can make the program even better in the future,” he said.

Angelenos is also invested in the success of the program. Nearly 70% of LA County voters approved Measure W in 2018, allowing the county to impose a parcel tax of 2.5 cents per square foot of impervious area. A typical homeowner pays between $50 and $125 per year, while large commercial lots with parking could cost as much as $10,000.

“It is encouraging to see the LA Waterkeeper and others recognizing the complexity of a regional program like Safe Clean Water and its achievements to date,” LA County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella said in a statement. “We also recognize that there are opportunities to improve the program and will continue to work with stakeholders to adaptively manage and improve it – while seeking funding from a variety of other sources to accelerate its full implementation.”

The county has captured nearly 50 billion gallons of rainwater through its network of dams, reservoirs and circulation areas since last October alone, according to Pestrella. Improvements through the Safe Clean Water Program over the next five years will save an additional 18.5 billion gallons, or “enough to fill the Rose Bowl 219 times,” he said.

But Gold compared the Safe Clean Water program to Measure M, a transit tax that he said focused less on individual projects and more on long-term plans.

“That is what is largely lacking in Measure W. Knowing that you’re making $280 million in revenue per year over time allows you to take a long-term view of these larger, more transformative projects,” he said. He added that he would like to see stormwater collection incorporated into any transit project that goes ahead.

“We’ve learned a lot in the first few years and it’s just time to be more strategic and visionary about what we’re achieving with this unprecedented program,” he said. “This literally has the ability to be transformative.” Progress on L.A. County stormwater capture program slowing

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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