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'Clean Water, Clean Beaches' runs afoul of complex green values at LA supes meeting

A protester who identified himself as Mike said he would pay more than $10,000 a year for his Santa Clarita property if a proposed stormwater tax goes through.
A protester who identified himself as Mike said he would pay more than $10,000 a year for his Santa Clarita property if a proposed stormwater tax goes through.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

Everybody likes clean beaches, right? Well, yes. That's probably a decent chunk of the reason why the county's plan to seek stormwater funding got named "Clean Water, Clean Beaches." But some people like other environmental values too. So it got complicated among environmentalists during Tuesday’s stormwater parcel tax hearing. Within the environmental community there emerged two main objections to the county’s proposal; those objections were at least a little persuasive with the board of supervisors, who pushed off a decision to send the stormwater plan to a vote.

First, some environmental activists expressed concern about how well-informed non-English speaking homeowners were in advance of the hearing.

“Given the demographics in our region, we can't afford to assess a parcel fee that in the end people that are driving the region's economy and social dynamics don't understand,” Adan Ortega wrote to me, in advance of Tuesday’s hearing. Ortega  is board chair of Mujeres de la Tierra, a group that tries to get neighborhoods traditionally excluded from mainstream debate involved in environmental policy discussions.  In a letter to the supervisors a few days before the hearing, Mujeres complained that the county's  mailing about the parcel tax proposal looked like junk mail; on top of that, President and CEO Irma Munoz criticized the English-language focus of the county’s outreach efforts: 

[E]thnic small businesses and people of low income communities have not been a part of the discussions in the development of the funding measure. Most significantly, the people we work with are not traditional “minorities” to be dealt with by proxy, but a growing significant plurality and majority of diversity in Los Angeles County.

Meanwhile, some conservation-minded environmentalists raised other objections to the county's stormwater management plan. Marcia Hanscom is one of those critics; she described herself as being in love with wetlands and protecting them for 20 years. Hanscom is with the Ballona Institute and the Wetlands Defense Center. 

“The new normal for government agencies seems to be to call restoration bulldozing of wetland habitat. [sic. I think she meant to call bulldozing restoration, not the other way around], much like we saw at Sepulveda Basin with the Army Corps of Engineers recently,” Hanscom told supervisors Tuesday. “The next target that some of these folks have in mind is the Ballona Wetlands.”

Hanscom opposed the measure, but if it were to pass, she argued that no funds from this measure  should go to wetland habitats or natural areas. Her concerns about this measure seem at least partly rooted in her mistrust of federal, state and local governments’ “multi-benefit” sensibilities. In this case, the county says it can act to control floods, promote natural habitat, and minimize stormwater pollution.

Hanscom and others who have actively opposed wetland restoration projects, including the one at Malibu Lagoon, argue (very generally) that public agencies doing what they call “restoration” are merely altering public landscapes, at great expense, with mixed benefits, particularly for wildlife in places like Malibu Lagoon, Ballona Wetlands, and Sepulveda Basin. For these folks, the prospect of cleaner water resulting from the county’s proposal would be outweighed by the potential harm.

These two objections serve to underscore the complexity of what the county’s trying to do. Among larger environmental groups that generally support the idea of funding green infrastructure with property fees, the flood control district had to work to stave off skepticism about how it would spend the money. No wonder the supervisors struggled to see the upside in the plan with the simple name.