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A Look Back at a Decade of Proposition O

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The $84 million restoration of Echo Park Lake was funded by Proposition O

With the complexities of running a city, local governments are often reactive, firefighting in response to events that occur outside of its purview. However, a decade ago, Los Angeles wasn't that. It took decisive steps forward in addressing water quality.

In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency enforced the Federal Clean Water Act that required cities to clean up pollution in its waterways for cleaner and safer water. With no money to work with, city officials and environmental groups such as Heal the Bay and TreePeople worked together on a strategy to help the city implement plans that would clean up trash from the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek, reduce bacteria and other toxic materials from Santa Monica Bay, Marina del Rey, and Harbor and Cabrillo beaches, as well as in urban rivers and lakes. Together, they introduced Proposition O, an unprecedented $500 million bond proposal that would be financed in an increase of property tax rates by 1%, or about $34 annually for a home assessed at $350,000. The proposal passed on November 2, 2004 with an overwhelming 76% vote in support. So began a decade-long journey to educate the public about the importance of water management and to show Angelenos what good water quality projects actually looked like.

"It was the first of its kind because it addressed innovative stormwater projects that used more natural systems," said Barbara Romero, a commissioner on the Board of Public Works, who ten years ago was part of the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), a stakeholder in the bond. "It didn't just replace pipes, but it produced projects that showed how water was captured and processed [...] It was an opportunity to change people's understanding about water."

Instead of a top-down, end-of-pipe approach, Los Angeles tried something new. City agencies, non-profits, and community groups would propose multi-benefit projects for development during a series of workshops. Final selection and construction of projects would fall to the city. Administratively, a nine-member Citizen Oversight Advisory Committee (COAC) chosen by the mayor and the city council, in collaboration with the Bureau of Sanitation, would be responsible for the criteria for judging proposed projects, recommending projects for funding and funding levels. An Administrative Oversight Committee (AOC), a five-member committee made up of representatives from the city, would make its own recommendations. Those recommendations are then sent to the City Council for final approval.

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The most visible of Proposition O projects included the $84 million Echo Park Lake restoration that acts as a detention basin for stormwater, and the $26 million South Los Angeles Wetlands that turned a former industrial yard into a green space that cleans up water.

"Proposition O has been a godsend for us," said Enrique Zaldivar, Director of the Los Angeles City Bureau of Sanitation, "It gave us the ability to do the green infrastructure that is the beginning of the future of the city in terms of its larger water infrastructure. Thanks to it, we've been able to put on the ground the kind of Integrated Water Resources projects we've been convinced is important for any large city, but definitely in the west."

After a decade of work, $494 million have been allocated to 29 projects, with about $288 million spent as of September, 2014. Sixteen projects have been completed, including ten parks, five green streets, and two lakes restored. There are about 1.98 million square meters of habitat restored; 77 acres of land purchased to be turned into green space; and more than 135 acres of green space enhanced or cleaned. The completed projects would be able to capture as much as 652 million gallons of water, or enough to supply 4,000 households for a year.

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$26 million South L.A. Wetlands Park was funded by Proposition O | Photo: Bri Weldon/Flickr/Creative Commons

There is little question that Proposition O has gone a long way toward changing a city's perspective on dealing with its water crisis -- but it didn't do so without some initial bumps. A September 2007 study by UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Civil and Environmental Engineering concluded "implementation of this bond measure reveals a process that was not planned and that fell short of the interactive and integrated approach that seemed promised in the language of the proposition." It also goes on to say that the "cost effectiveness [of projects] varied greatly, and that the city-proposed projects ranked more highly than community-based projects that served multiple objective projects."

In response, Mark Gold, then-executive director for Heal the Bay, and now acting director of the above-mentioned UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has pointed out the it has been years since that initial environment report was published, "so much has changed since then. Many of the comments are legitimate, but I was one of those people who fought for much stricter criteria for projects that was eventually adopted by the city."

Such is why Gold points out, "Not every single project has been amazing. There were a couple that got in that were okay, but there were some that you can look at in Los Angeles and go 'Wow! This really made L.A. a better place.'" Gold includes such visible projects as the Echo Park Lake restoration in his stellar list, but then there are also projects that were less glamorous but no less important, such as installation of catch basin screens. Proposition O installed 7,620 storm drains inserts and 24,187 storm drain screens.

"I was talking to a leadership and water class in UCLA and I was telling them catch basins were where baseballs go to die. Adding a screen really made a big difference in reducing trash in the water." Instead of open drains where trash flows unimpeded, screens trap the trash and only allow liquids to flow to the oceans.

Still, despite the $500 million Los Angeles taxpayers have voted to build water projects in the city, there is still much left to do. Though the amount seems staggering, $500 million only lays the groundwork for L.A.'s future water infrastructure. As Pincetl's study points out, when Proposition O passed, the city was already combating nearly 30 years of infrastructure backlogs.

Romero, Zaldivar, and Gold all commented that constructing water quality projects isn't enough. Any future funding source would have to also include money for maintaining these projects. "We're scrounging to maintain these projects," said Zaldivar, "We're pulling funds from our department-based funding, which is very limited to begin with. It's not sustainable for a long period."

He said that as a rule of thumb the cost of maintenance is typically ten percent of the cost of construction, so a project like the South Los Angeles Wetlands would cost about $200 million to maintain and operate. "Many of them have pumps, filters, even vegetation needs maintenance."

"The reality is that we need an ongoing revenue stream to pay for operations and maintenance. It's very clear that it's a growing problem with these projects. It's a problem not just in Los Angeles but all over the state," said Gold. He adds that isn't the only issue. He said the public also needs a better gauge of how well the projects are working. "We need to build in assessment up front as a requirement." It is an issue the city is trying to address this winter by contracting with a consulting firm to put together a monitoring and assessment tool of each of the projects.

Despite these hiccups, Proposition O has certainly contributed to improve water quality in Los Angeles and while funds continue to dwindle, the need for a proactive response to water quality and conservation persists. The Mayor has put water on his agenda. His recent directive has the city reducing potable water use by 20% by 2017, purchase of imported water by 50% by 2024, and creation of an integrated water strategy for Los Angeles. The upcoming vote on Proposition 1 has the potential to provide revenue source, though not dedicated to Los Angeles. Los Angeles needs to continue its proactive stance toward water quality and conservation. The city's future does depend on it.

 

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