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Property Owners To Pay for Urban Runoff Clean-up?

If Harry Potter had Lord Voldemort, water quality managers and environmentalists have urban runoff and untreated stormwater, a toxic soup of pollutants that routinely make its way from the city's roadways and rooftops down to our waterways and oceans each time it rains.

Like He Who Must Not Be Named, urban runoff is difficult to pin down. It has no headquarters; urban runoff accumulates from millions of sources around the city and beyond.

The mixing of this foul brew begins whenever the rain falls. Rainwater -- which would normally seep into the soil to be filtered, cleaned and added to the groundwater supply -- instead meets impervious surfaces such as concrete roads and rooftops, sweeping up all the trash, animal feces, bacteria, oils, and residue we intentionally or inadvertently leave behind. The slush then makes it way to stormwater drains, and eventually into the waterways. The Council for Watershed Health estimates that on average 500,000 acre-feet of runoff escapes into the ocean from the Los Angeles basin, or about one-third of the county's annual water use.

Given that everyone is somehow culpable to environmental damage simply by living in an urban area, water agencies and the city is now asking whether Angelenos be willing to fund solutions by paying a Clean Water Fee as part of the Clean Waters, Clean Beaches measure that would annually charge property owners depending on the amount of impervious surfaces on the property. Most homeowners would be assessed at $54 or less, typical condominium owners $20, while fast food establishments around 100 square feet would pay about $250, said Kerjon Lee, spokesperson for Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

The measure, if passed, would require all property owners, including churches, schools, even the county, to pay the fee beginning in the 2013-2014 property tax roll. The fee would be collected each year unless terminated by the Board of Supervisors. By law, fees cannot be raised unless another public hearing and election takes place.

Collected alongside property taxes, the Clean Water Fee could raise up to $290 million each year to help clean up runoff before it can contaminate local rivers and oceans, according to Lee. Instead of polluting our waterways, the captured and cleaned rainwater could replenish local water supplies, lessening the county's dependence on imported water. Los Angeles currently imports two-thirds of its drinking water.

Half of the funds would be allocated to nine Watershed Authority Groups, regional collaborative groups within the upper and lower Los Angeles River, upper and lower San Gabriel River, Santa Clara River, Rio Hondo River, Ballona Creek, Santa Monica Bay, and Dominguez Channel watersheds. 40 percent of the funds would be given to cities and unincorporated communities to fund new and existing local water quality projects. The final 10 percent would be used by the LACFCD for countywide water quality monitoring, research and technical assistance.

LACFCD has already laid out some water projects on the Clean Water, Clean Beaches website. Projects range from simple, directed solutions such as installing drain screens to keep trash and debris at street level, to multi-benefit projects like Sun Valley's Strathern Wetlands Park, which turns 46 acres of dirty industrial pit into a recreational area complete with a water storage pond.

Unlike Proposition O, a bond that raised up to $500 million for projects that clean up pollution in the city's waterways, the Water Quality Fee could potentially be a sustainable source of income to be used to used not only to build new facilities, but help in its upkeep.

"While the city of Los Angeles has Prop O, which is a bond, it has no money for operations and maintenance. Once you build those facilities [using Prop O funds], the city is going to have to dig within its general funds or find a partnership to fund the operation of the facility. This would offer a long-term sustainable funding source," said Lee.

The proposed Water Quality Fee is unrelated to LACFCD's current legal troubles, said Lee. On December 4, the Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments that would help judges settle the question of whether LACFCD is responsible for tainted runoff released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. Should the Supreme Court decision find the LACFCD liable, Lee says separate funds would need to be found.

Before property owners are asked to shell out however, LACFCD must secure voter approval through a two-step process in accordance with California Constitution. The process includes a public hearing and mail-in ballot election.

The public hearing is set for 9:30 am on January 15, 2013 at Board of Supervisors Hearing Room, Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, 500 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Property owners can file a written protest at any time before the end of the public hearing. Written protests must must be signed by the property owner, include the parcel number and parce address. It should be addressed to: Executive Officer, Board of Supervisors at P.O. Box 866006, Los Angeles, CA 90086. Notices that indicate the exact fee and full instructions should arrive in property owner mailboxes as early as December 3, said Lee.

If the Board of Supervisors receives protests from more than 50 percent of property owners in the county, it can suspend mail-in election vote. Otherwise, it would authorize a mail-in election to approve the fee sometime Spring 2013. A simple "yes" majority approves the measure.

Get more information at Clean Water, Clean Beaches website.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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