While rainfall can be a welcome sight in the dry Southland, when water hits the region's concrete and blacktop landscape, it turns into a giant headache for beachgoers and environmentalists: untreated storm water or urban runoff.
The cost of addressing that toxic soup - which fouls inland rivers and lakes, makes beach-goers and surfers sick, kills marine life and taints fish and shellfish sold as food - has got environmentalists and county leaders turning to a new parcel tax.
Water managers view rain rushing down gutters differently - not as pollution but as a lost resource. Every gallon of rain water that funnels down hundreds of miles of concrete channels to the Pacific Ocean represents a gallon of drinking water they now have to purchase from Northern California or the Colorado River at much higher costs. Already, Los Angeles County gets 60 percent of its water from such imported sources, even as supplies dwindle and prices skyrocket.
So water agencies have teamed up with environmentalists, regulatory agencies and the county of Los Angeles to tackle the newest front in the ecological battle: urban runoff.
They are backing a proposed parcel fee - some call it a tax - that would annually charge property owners across the county from $54 for a single family home to $11,000 for a big box retailer to raise approximately $275 million a year to clean up pollution runoff before it reaches local rivers, beaches and parks.
Before the proposal can advance, the county will give residents until Jan. 15 to file an objection. If a majority of property owners don't object, the Board of Supervisors can approve a mail-in ballot to be sent to all property owners.
A simple majority of support would create the first revenue stream dedicated solely for the treatment of storm water.
An urban runoff story
With regulations in place to stop dumping from big polluters like chemical companies, environmentalists and regulators working to keep pollution out of the ocean, lakes and rivers have turned to the millions of homeowners whose lawns overflow with fertilizers and whose pets drop feces into city streets that wash into storm drains.
"One of the primary sources of water pollution is nonpoint sources," explained Kerjon Lee, spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. "It is people putting cigarette butts on the street. It is the guy changing his oil or his anti-freeze in the street and allowing some of that to leak into the storm drain, or the guy who just dumps it into the catch basin."
After a storm, rainwater moves across the county, picking up animal feces, bacteria, lead, arsenic, waste oil and other toxins from automobiles as well as hazardous chemicals such as lawn fertilizers and household pesticides. The toxic soup travels hundreds of miles in washes, creeks, streams into recreational areas and eventually, the ocean.
For example, urban runoff in the Rio Hondo River pollutes the lake at Peck Road Park near Arcadia and El Monte, making swimming and eating fish caught there dangerous.
When the runoff from the county's 529 miles of open rivers and channels and 2,800 miles of underground storm drains reaches the ocean, devastation awaits sea life. It can also sicken human visitors and cause beach closures.
Last summer, Heal the Bay said seven of the 10 most polluted beaches in the state were in L.A. County. Overall, 25 percent of the beaches in the state received a D or F in the environmental group's 2012 Beach Report Card.
Swimming in contaminated beaches can lead to gastroenteritis and ear, nose and throat infections, according to the county and environmental groups.
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science attributed hundreds of dead seals, sea lions and dolphins that wash up onto the California shoreline each year to urban runoff and reduced food sources.
At the outlet of the San Gabriel River near Long Beach, NASA's Goddard Earth Sciences Center found a "dead zone" where urban pollution feeds an abnormal algae bloom that literally sucks the oxygen out of the water. As a result, fish and shellfish suffocate and only worms and jellyfish survive.
An unfunded mandate
The federal Clean Water Act keeps on spitting out mandates to counties and cities, the most recent coming from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
While the feds and the Regional Board breath down the necks of the cities to stop this scourge, cities say the order amounts to an unfunded mandate.
"It is extremely difficult for cities to move forward," said Monrovia Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, who sits on the Regional Water board. "Nobody has a budget for it. There is no revenue stream. It is an unfunded federal mandate."
And an expensive one at that.
Lutz said the city of Los Angeles has told the Board it will cost the city between $5 billion to $8 billion to treat all its urban runoff. For the foothill town of Monrovia, she puts the cost at $3 million to $5 million.
Sam Unger, executive officer of the Regional Water Board, said cities can try low-tech solutions such as encouraging homeowners to capture water in rain cisterns. Owners of parking lots can resurface using more water-permeable material to allow rainwater to seep back into the aquifer.
Other more high-tech solutions include diverting storm water into sewage treatment plants, Unger said. "These are very effective," he said.
"The new regulations are designed to give municipalities the flexibility to design a strategy that meets clean water goals in the most cost-effective way," he said in a prepared statement.
While Lutz agreed the new regulations are flexible and promote groups working together on regional solutions, the one thing they do not do is supply money.
That's where the county's Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure comes in.
A parcel fee proposed
With the OK from the state Legislature given in 2010, the county Department of Public Works has proposed the parcel fee to clean up polluted runoff.
The water fee would average $54 per single-family property, $20 per condominium, between $300 and $400 for a 7-Eleven and about $11,000 for the typical big-box wholesale or home improvement store 10 acres in size, according to Hector J. Bordas, area engineer with the county Department of Public Works.
Fees would be paid by 2.1 million property owners. No parcels are exempt, Bordas said. That means, schools, churches, cities and even the county would have to pay a parcel fee if the mail-in measure receives more than 50 percent approval.
The fee would be added to the county's consolidated property tax bill.
Half of the money would go to Watershed Authority Groups that are affiliated with such areas as the Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek, upper and lower San Gabriel River, Dominguez Channel, Santa Clara River and the Rio Hondo River.
About 40 percent would go to cities and unincorporated areas for local storm water improvement projects. For example, Monrovia and many similar-sized cities would get about $300,000 per year, Lutz said.
Bordas, in a talk to area managers of private industry earlier this month, said he's reaching out to business and government alike to get support for the proposal. He's met with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which earlier in the year told the Board of Supervisors that the $4.8 million it would pay under the proposal "was a major concern."
Each 10-acre elementary school would be assessed about $8,000 a year, Bordas said. That could add up for school districts. For example, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District would be charged about $232,000 for just its K-6, K-8 and middle schools.
Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe spoke against the measure in July, when the Board voted 3-2 to move ahead with the process.
Knabe called it "a sneak attack" and Antonovich said the federal and state government should pay for cleanup.
But Bordas said for cities deciding between paying for police and fire and paying for storm water cleanup, the new parcel fee would be needed relief.
"Right now, there is no dedicated revenue stream to clean up storm water. We are proposing the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure," he told the Industry Advisory Council in November.
A fresh water source
Water managers - from Metropolitan Water District to state and local agencies - say the proposal could provide much-needed water to the region. They say that storm water is the nearest and most plentiful source.
"But doing storm water capture is tough," Bordas said. "It is dirty. It is polluted. It picks up pesticides, metals and trash. You can't just put it into the water supply," he said.
One solution is to capture it as soon as it hits the ground, said Mike Antos, research manager with the Council for Watershed Health, an L.A.-based nonprofit that studies the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers.
Antos' group found that before urbanization, 95 percent of rainfall in Southern California went back into the ground. Today, with concrete and asphalt covering the region, 60 percent of rainfall is lost to the ocean, Antos said.
"We'll never get all back to only 5 percent of the rain getting out to the ocean," he said. "But we know there are projects that can solve water quality and take a bite out of water quantity problems, and also take bites out of climate change."
This can be done through localized infiltration basins that treat storm water directly under a park or shopping center. For example, the Council points to such a system installed beneath the neighborhood of Sun Valley, in the San Fernando Valley.
The county installed an infiltration system to catch chronic floodwaters, treat the runoff and pump it into the ground. The water is naturally cleansed by the sediments and rocks, Antos said.
The city of Downey put in a similar storm water treatment system under the old Boeing site. The area became Downey Landing, a commercial development, Bordas said.
Should the measure pass, he suggests building infiltration systems under each of the county's 500 parks. "There are hundreds of government parcels out there available we can take a look at," Bordas said.
"This is like free water," explained Kenneth Manning, executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority, a state agency that helps clean ground water. "And the best filter for that water is the natural soil."
Lutz said the upcoming measure is the only hope for both cities trying to clean runoff and for cities trying to break away from buying expensive, imported water.
"This will help us be the masters of our own fate," Lutz said.