Los Angeles County's delay on stormwater parcel vote complicates pollution cleanup

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

Stormwater runs down paved streets and into storm systems - or just over the edge of a cliff. If it isn't captured or treated, it carries pollutants, pesticides, and bacteria into the ocean.

A raucous public hearing on Tuesday convinced the L.A. County board of supervisors to defer a vote on a property fee for water quality programs. The move complicates the county’s ambitious plan to cut pollution by capturing stormwater closer to where it falls.

No property owners would be exempt from the tax. Most everybody who showed up at Tuesday's hearing said they couldn't pay it, including some of the county's 88 cities. Burbank and Santa Clarita complained they'd face steep bills. So did Rosemead's former four-time mayor and current councilwoman Margaret Clark.

 “We acknowledge that we need the money,” Clark said. “This is an unfunded mandate. There are some 92 things we need to get out of the stormwater. But this is not the right approach.”

Other property owners, including school districts, argued during the five-hour hearing that, as 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it, the parcel fee was “not ready for prime time."

First District Supervisor Gloria Molina chastised public works officials for failing to anticipate political problems.

“This has been turned over, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, to a group of people who probably didn’t understand how sensitive the political issues are here,” she said. “And if they did, you wouldn’t know by today’s events.”

The assistant director for L.A. county’s department of public works, Mark Pestrella, insists his staff was prepared.

“I expected that the hearing would go in the fashion that it did,” Pestrella said. “Any time you actually construct a hearing for people to protest you should expect protesters.”

But even those at the hearing who accepted the premise of a stormwater fee complained about how it would be calculated. The county's formula would penalize those with a lot of pavement – such as schools. Pestrella says public works officials will adjust the formula to credit property owners who are addressing stormwater issues. 

“There should be some way to credit folks doing things on their own properties to address stormwater quality and replenishment of water in the groundwater table,” Pestrella says. “And that means installing something or changing the way the properties drain and the way that they capture stormwater currently treating that water before it leaves that property.”

There are other criticisms: The L.A. County Business Federation is unhappy that the fee would never expire. And 4th District Supervisor Don Knabe says the county has failed to fully explain to the public how the fee would be calculated, or how people could challenge it. Pestrella says his team is working on these and other concerns.

"There was enough good constructive criticism and feedback that we've got to get real serious about addressing those issues," Pestrella says.

While the county decides how to do that, some environmental groups warn of the consequences of inaction.

"These are waters that should have been cleaned up years if not decades ago," says Noah Garrison of  the Natural Resources Defense Council. "People swimming in water contaminated from stormwater runoff can get gastroenteritis, pink eye, skin rashes, ear, nose and throat and respiratory problems. These violations can make people sick."

Local governments are responsible for cleaning up stormwater pollution under the terms of the federal Clean Water Act. Meanwhile, regional regulators have stepped up their efforts. Last month. the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board updated its stormwater rules. They include more monitoring stations, which will make it easier to identify – and penalize – the cities that are contributing to runoff pollution. That was Supervisor Molina's message to city leaders, including Rosemead's Margaret Clark.

"You'd think the cities would understand...but maybe nobody's told them that there are going to be major fines," Molina said at Tuesday's hearing. "The county of Los Angeles is not going to pay it. Not paying for Rosemead, Margaret. Those cities will have to pay those fines."

The supervisors did direct their staff to explore sources of funding other than a parcel tax. But officials are skeptical that they could find enough money elsewhere in the budget. So when the hearing resumes in March, the stormwater tax may still be the main idea on the table.

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