Property Owners Asked to Finance Water Clean Up

In the sci-fi film "Fantastic Voyage", a submarine crewed by a team of scientists is shrunk to the size of a microbe and injected into the veins of a wounded diplomat. The scientists take a roundabout tour through the body's principal conduits that are gigantic to them. They have adventures. They heal the diplomat. The survivors get out before they expand back to their proper size.

The scale of the county's storm drain system has the same distorting wrongness. Climb down into the dark tunnels and you shrink. Openings as big around as an SUV punch into mile-long corridors 20 feet high and 12 feet across. Pits yawn that could swallow a bus whole. House-size flues rise into rectangles of daylight far above.

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The hidden veins of the storm drain system (along with the concrete channels that have replaced the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Rio Hondo rivers) will move million of gallons water an hour if a sequence of closely packed storms stalls on the basin side of the encircling mountains. That's happened an average of every 50 years of so for as long as records have been kept.

In other years and other seasons, the system flows with the discharge of the few perennial streams* that still snake out out of the arroyos of the Santa Monica Mountains, passing through the grounds of foothill estates and disappearing into the underworld of the drains.

But most of the water tickling into the system comes from the waste of landscape irrigation, leaking water lines, and runoff from hosing sidewalks and driveways. It's only a short distance from storm drain openings to the "low flow" slot in the middle of the river channels and to the ocean. Whatever falls or drips on the hard surfaces of the county is likely to end up there.

By state and federal law, this everyday runoff must be captured and processed to remove litter and pollutants before it reaches the Pacific. It's a task as big as the storm drain system. The ultimate cost will likely be in the billions.

The County Board of Supervisors has begun a process that will poll landowners to to get approval of a "parcel tax" to pay for some of the remediation. If a majority of property owners agrees, the county could begin collecting and distributing about $270 million a year in 2014. The typical homeowner would see a new, $54 item on his property tax bill. Landowners with large areas of concrete and asphalt -- a shopping center, say -- would be assessed about $80 a year.

If the parcel tax plan is given final approval by the Board of Supervisors, voting by mail would take place over a 45-day period between March and May in 2013.

The county will collect the tax, but it's the responsibility of individual cities to manage the runoff from the storm drain openings on their streets. About 40 percent of the money raised will go to cities to cover their costs. Another 50 percent will go to unincorporated communities. The rest will go to the County Flood Control District for administrative costs.

Divvying up the revenues has been contentious. The city of Los Angeles -- as usual -- objected to the distribution formula and held up county action for nearly a year. Other cities are skeptical, too, fearing that their share of revenues will never be enough. Some cities would prefer to set up their own parcel tax vote . . . and keep all of the resulting revenue.

Despite these misgivings, the Board of Supervisors is expected to schedule the parcel tax mail-in vote at a board meeting in June.

* There also are remnant natural springs in Los Angeles County that flow into the storm drain system.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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