One Billion Dollars
February 17, 2023 § 5 Comments
One billion dollars distracted me big time today. Well that was yesterday now. And yes, this is about water and ultimately, our creeks and rivers.
Let that be a this-is-a-long-post alert.
One billion is a huge number! It’s 1,314 homes at LA’s median selling price at this minute. It’s 6,973 median-priced hotel rooms (purchased, not rented). It’s 80-100 acres of land zoned manufacturing or industrial in the Valley. Porous, highly infiltratable to groundwater, land.
But yesterday it was reported by LA Waterkeeper that $1 billion of your LA County Measure W tax funds have, over the past 3 years, yielded:
- 30 acres of land unpaved (confusingly, they also noted that there was paving added, for a trail – ok – and also a basin liner – ? – yielding a net depaving of about 2.8 acres)
- the potential to capture 394 million gallons of rainfall runoff (which is about 1,209 acre-feet) if it rained all day (which it rarely does)
- 4,280 trees
For $1 billion.
What would I expect that to cost?
- the cost to plant a tree is about $210 (per Caltrans, 2023)
- Unpaving, if it is targeted as rain gardens, would cost about $40-50/SF – and a lot less if it is just “unpaving”.
Well that adds up to $66,238,800 for “unpaving/rain gardens” 30 acres and 4,280 trees, or about 6% of that one billion. If you look at how much water the rain gardens could have captured you’d have needed about 65 acres total for equivalent runoff capture. And that would be $143,000,000.
So if you really took a real “nature-based” approach to managing stormwater (which should maybe just be called a watershed approach – there’s a reason that jargon fell out of the water world lexicon), I’d be expecting about $857,531,200 leftover, for equivalency.
Eight hundred fifty seven million five hundred thirty one thousand two hundred dollars.
So a clue to where all that other money went lies in the runoff statistic. Whether or not that acreage captured much runoff, we do know that the region has a fetish (painfully elaborated upon here and here) for diverting water out of
stormdrains buried streams and pumping it to sewage treatment plants for subsequent pumping to infiltration basins. We call that stopping rain from being “wasted” by going out to sea.
So yeah, a lot lot lot of money for pipes and pumps and a little green fluff on top sounds like a likely scenario. Or as LA County says, “These projects can be large stormwater capture facilities that infiltrate into groundwater, store and treat water before releasing the cleaner water to downstream rivers, or diversion projects that transport stormwater to existing sewer treatment plants for recycling, creating a new source of water supply. The program prioritizes projects that utilize nature-based solutions, projects that use natural processes to mimic the natural water cycle by slowing, detaining, infiltrating or filtering stormwater.”
I don’t know how you prioritize natural processes and diversions to the sewer system or basins at the same time.
I googled a featured exemplar project (that’s the report’s word), at Edward Vincent Jr. Park in Inglewood. Centinela Creek was once a perennial creek at this location. (Yeah, you know that’s why I chose this project to examine.) In fact, the creek was fed by artesian springs back in the day. There’s even a little marker memorializing it in the park. The proposal has a design fee of $4.27 m and a proposed construction cost of $42m.
My notion of nature-based and natural processes here would be: daylight the creek! What defines a creek is its geomorphic processes, how they dissipate energy through their stream geometry and relationship to the vegetation on the banks – how they shape and maintain their channel form – let the conveyance of water and sediment shape and maintain the channel and floodplain! Design the floodplain to coexist with recreational facilities that can be closed when it is raining. Let the floodplain flood, and by so doing, slow water down allowing for passive groundwater recharge. No pumps, no electricity, lower maintenance on the mechanical side. The stormwater traversing soil and vegetation also improves its water quality. Have you heard about the hyporheic zone? It’s kind of like the gut bacteria of a stream – and when supported it can play an incredible role in polishing water quality.
But nope, that’s not the plan. Instead we have a hydrologic Rube Goldberg machine in which incoming stormwater is diverted to an infiltration bed, then apparently pumped via a lift station to a “dry creek channel” (this is not a creek – it is a faux arroyo aka fauxrroyo. See above for what real creeks do and are) which then goes to a bioretention area which is presumably meant to look like a wetland – are you still with me? – to then be returned at the downstream end to the flood control channel/storm drain by which I mean concreted and very unrestored stream. Like I said, pipes and pumps with green fluff.
I do kind of lose it when I see this. It’s partly about the money, but it’s also about how that expenditure takes less expensive, more truly integrated options off the table. Here’s some projects and numbers for context:
That design fee alone is more than what it cost for the entire renovation of Johnny Carson Park in Burbank including naturalizing its creek, which I was involved in (as staff at RDG and a sub to MIG/Ahbe) at its early stages. The creek was 885 ft long there and had previously been a finger of the Tujunga Wash, locked in decorative concrete since the 1970s.
It probably cost about $2,000-$2,300/LF to naturalize the “Little Tujunga Wash” creek. So, to play some more cost estimating games, let’s add some $$ because Centinela’s a more complicated stream, let’s say $3,000/LF. That would be $6.8 million, which I needn’t tell you is a LOT less than $42.4 million. But everyone cranks on about how expensive (and impossible) stream restoration is.
(Digression: using that restoration cost metric, how many stream – not river – miles could you get out of $1 billion? About 63. Miles.)
I can’t promise you that a daylighted and naturalized Centinela Creek channel would result in test tube water quality results that meet the region’s TMDL requirements. But I can tell you that the runoff entering into Edward Vincent Park is mostly from residential areas, not generally considered the highest contributor to poor water quality. Just downstream however are highly paved industrial and highway commercial areas – and that Rube Goldberg machine will be dumping its ostensibly polished water into the mess of nonpoint source pollution that such land uses generate. But the “water quality cost effectiveness” of the project was rated at 81% by someone. It won’t recharge groundwater. Despite this being an already pretty leafy park, the proposal is considered something that would reduce the urban heat island, and despite the decidedly contrived mechanisms of the project, it claims to “mimic natural processes to slow, detain, capture, and infiltrate water” and “use natural materials including soils and native vegetation.” Dude, soil?
Another project I worked on recently with the Waterways Restoration Institute proposed naturalizing a 900’ long channelized creek in a city park in Sebastopol. It’s new length, with proper stream geometry, would be about 1,200’. We completed a preliminary geomorphic assessment including a basis of design using available hydrology data, and developed a landscape concept plan. The City has given us go-ahead to seek grant funding and I can tell you that our proposed fee to complete all related design tasks is substantially less than $4.27 million. And I have little doubt that implementation will fall far short of $42 million. LA deserves more parks with creeks like this in it. LA’s people deserve it.
In a world of possibilities, where we truly get watershed processes that flow and shape the land and provide free benefits to us in the form of groundwater, recreational land, habitat, natural cooling… I was part of a team (led by The River Project and including Balance Hydrologics, GHD, and with SALT helping out on public and agency outreach) doing a feasibility study to restore the LA River in the Sepulveda Basin. We were awarded a grant of $161,750. That was for 8 miles of the river and its tributaries, for revisioning over 1,800 acres of open space including park land. There were no Rube Goldberg machines. We estimated that with reestablishment of real natural river processes, specifically geomorphic processes that include flooding (and the creation of floodplains), groundwater infiltration could be increased by a factor of 5. We also demonstrated that stormwater detention and storage could be increased by about 20%, or 3,800 acre-feet. And we showed that you could double the amount of trails and sports fields, and increase riparian and upland habitats. We don’t really know where that project will go, but when I learned from the racist secret recordings of former (and a lingering current) LA City council members that one of them wanted to plop an NFL stadium there, I had about the same boinging brain reaction as I did to the $1 billion price tag I’m writing about today.
Speaking of how public money goes to projects that aren’t explicitly about restoration, so now the Sepulveda Basin is hot to trot, and a new consultant team is working on yet a new vision plan for it. Community members have had to wage a campaign to force a commitment to nature based strategies at the basin, and to ensuring that any plans that come forward do not prevent the river from being restored. (Not sure about the status of that).
I always seem to say, it doesn’t have to be this way.
So now you know, pinko lefty eco-chicas can also be concerned about fiscal responsibility and accountability. Especially when not only money, but creeks (and the childhoods played in them) are being wasted.
Hey, apparently we should have more “lefty eco-chicas” ruling. I didn’t “fine-tooth” comb this article, but I got the drift big-time: runoff water is massively wasted, with enormous, unnecessary spending, when we could restore local, old watercourses in California with a comparatively miniscule budget and get more bang for fewer bucks. Which, of course, is always what you were about. Thanks for this! Can I share your photos/designs sometime in a FB post occasionally (“Prisk Native Garden”)? Be well.
Mike, thanks and I don’t blame you for not “fine-tooth combing” this – I gave it a little cleanup which hopefully makes it less of an angry math report. Of course re sharing the pics, please include attribution. Thank you!
Great! Would certainly credit you! If you’re ever in the Long Beach area later this spring, come to Prisk and see our own humble “creek” that I created with a CNPS grant. The kids love scrambling over the rocks.
I’m sure the garden is going to look extra great with the rain this season. If I’m down, will definitely visit!
Our Open House dates are March 26 and April 2. (But you can swing by anytime this spring.) Looks like if there’s a Jeannette Marantos article on us in the LA Times before our Open House(s) we might have to do crowd control!