AB2554: New State Legislation Enables Potential County Water Quality Improvements

September 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

The California Senate and Assembly recently passed legislation that enables Los Angeles County to solve local water quality problems. The new law is Assembly Bill 2554 (AB2554.) It passed the State Senate on August 19th, and State Assembly on August 27th, and is currently awaiting Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature. 

Assemblywoman Brownley (left) with Nancy Sutley, of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Photo from Assemblywoman Brownley's website.

AB2554 was introduced by State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley whose district includes mainly the Santa Monica Bay coastal areas of Los Angeles County and a portion of southern Ventura County – roughly Santa Monica to Oxnard.

Here’s a basic description of AB2554 from the Legislative Highlights section of Brownley’s website:   

AB 2554 – Flood Control 

Los Angeles County contains six major watersheds, significant areas of coastline and multiple lakes and rivers which are subject to pollution from storm water and urban runoff. This bill would authorize Los Angeles County to ask voters … if they want to pay a property-related user fee to raise funds for clean water projects.
Status [9/5/2010]: Awaiting governor’s signature

LACFCD's rather concrete logo

AB2554 modifies legislation that dates to 1915 (nearly 100 years ago!) which established the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD.) At that time, Los Angeles was recovering from serious flooding in 1914. The state enabled locals to establish a body to tax ourselves for purposes of preventing floods. The LACFCD was established and mainly funded through local property tax revenue. The local funds were augmented with federal funding, as LACFCD worked as the local partner with the Army Corps of Engineers to solve L.A.’s flooding problem – paving most of our urban waterways. 

The LACFCD still very much exists, but it functions as a sort of wholly owned subsidiary of the county government. The county supervisors are its board. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LACDPW) is its staff; they build and maintain its facilities. 

In recent years, under the Clean Water Act, local municipalities, including the county, are mandated to ensure healthy water quality in local rivers, creeks, and beaches. Municipal resistance to this mandate is generally on the grounds that there’s not enough money available.

LACFCD’s 1915 enabling legislation limits its purpose. The Flood Control District can only spend its money on preventing floods, but not on improving water quality… despite the negative impacts that concrete flood control projects have had on water quality (not to mention habitat, water supply…)  Based on its state mandate, the Flood Control District narrowly only does Flood Control… which, I would roughly translate as: LACFCD effectively can spend money to degrade water quality, but not to improve it.

The narrow mission of LAFCD is one example of governmental “silo-ization” that inhibits more holistic ecosystems approaches. Healthy rivers are complex systems that: 

  • prevent floods
  • infiltrate water
  • prevent pollution
  • provide recreation and habitat
  • provide places to walk and bicycle
  • (and more…)

For the parts of the Los Angeles River watershed where I most often work, these purposes are silo-ed into various Departments/Bureaus, respectively: 

  • County Flood Control District
  • City Department of Water and Power
  • City Bureau of Sanitation (and others)
  • City Department of Recreation and Parks
  • City Department of Transportation
  • (and more)  

Good multi-benefit watershed management projects (including the Bimini Slough and Elmer Avenue) end up overlapping with the missions of various bureaus and departments. They cross silos. Unfortunately, multi-purpose coordination between the silos is difficult, time-consuming. Theoretically, multiple-benefit means more potential funding sources… but each of those funding sources can bring its own restrictions, schedules, deliverables… which can make holistic projects more difficult.  

Multi-benefit projects remain the exceptions that prove the rule. Re-doing the concrete bed of the Arroyo Seco better exemplifies typical local LACFCD projects: single-purpose, status quo, utilitarian, grey. These projects aren’t all bad – they definitely prevent flooding – but their net result has been wholesale degredation of rivers and creeks.

Locally, some environmentalists, most prominently Melanie Winter of The River Project, have pressed for a redefinition (effectively an expansion) of the Flood Control District’s mission. Winter has argued for the Flood Control District to become the Watershed Management District. 

AB2554 gets this redefinition started. It doesn’t change the name, but it does expand the LACFCD scope… in a positive way – a step in the right direction, but not quite an embrace of holistic environmental vision. Under AB2554 LACFCD’s scope expands from just Flood Control to Flood Control plus Water Quality.

In some ways, it’s less about scope than it is about money. Back to the Clean Water Act – see a half-dozen paragraphs above… The county’s flood prevention systems (concreted waterways, storm drains, etc.) have to comply with the Clean Water Act, so the LACFCD is responsible for preventing pollution. The county is looking at raising additional tax funding for water quality improvement projects (similar to the city of Los Angeles’ Proposition O and the city of Santa Monica’s Measure V) but their reading of their state enabling legislation restricts their funding to just preventing floods. 

AB2554 enables the LACFCD to raise and spend money for water quality improvement projects. Here are excerpts from the Legislative Counsel’s Digest – an official summary preamble to the bill: (emphasis added)

This bill would authorize the district to impose a fee or charge … to pay the costs and expenses of … carrying out projects and providing services to improve water quality and reduce stormwater and urban runoff pollution in the district in accordance with specified criteria.  

AB2554 by itself doesn’t start raising water quality money for the county, but allows the county to put raising money on a local ballot. So, a subsequent necessary step will be for the county to put a water quality tax measure to L.A. County voters. This ballot measure is likely a couple of years off. 

There are some additional details in the legislation (full AB2554 text here.) The money all goes to water quality, but is divided up based on the following formula: 

  • 10% goes to L.A. County – for administration, planning, monitoring.
  • 40% goes to cities (and the county, for unincorporated areas) – in proportion to how much is collected from each city/area – for water quality projects in each.
  • 50% goes to 9 “watershed authority groups” (see below) in proportion to how much is collected from each watershed.

Integrated Regional Water Management Plan map of L.A. County watershed planning areas

The 9 “watershed authority groups” in the legislation are somewhat similar to divisions already used for Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (IRWMP) work – with somewhat finer breakdown (Ballona, Dominguez and Rio Hondo are broken out, Santa Clara added.) Here’s a list from AB2554: 

  • Ballona Creek
  • Dominguez Channel
  • Upper Los Angeles River
  • Lower Los Angeles River
  • Rio Hondo
  • Upper San Gabriel River
  • Lower San Gabriel River
  • Santa Clara River
  • Santa Monica Bay

Overall, it’s a good thing that the county is taking steps to address water quality issues, and that the state is enabling the locals to proceed with this… though there’s a lot still left to work out. The details will determine how real, holistic, green, and transparent  it all ends up. At this point, Creek Freaks will keep track of whether the Governor actually signs the bill… then how the details emerge: funding mechanisms, project criteria, public participation, oversight, ballot measures, and more.

(Sadly, the same legislative session, where AB2554 passed, also saw the disgraceful demise of the AB1998 – a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. For coverage of that betrayal, I highly recommend Heal the Bay’s Mark Gold’s Spouting Off article State Senate: Industry Bagmen.)

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