Last year marked a difficult time in Los Angeles and 2010 promises to pose even greater challenges due to an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s promise to make L.A. the cleanest, greenest major city in America has a long way to go, but I really believe that the Mayor’s powers of persuasion and expert use of the bully pulpit can lead to tangible environmental improvements by the end of his second term. Without the mayor’s leadership, major policies and projects often fall into a state of suspended animation. The Los Angeles Times today published a piece about the mayor narrowing his focus at the beginning of his second term to ensure greater follow through on promises. When Villaraigosa sets his mind to a specific issue, it’s amazing how quickly things can move, e.g. renewable portfolio standards, support for Measure R, the green port program and the promise to get off coal by 2020. However, a great deal more needs to be done to meet his lofty green city goals.
Here’s my take on the three biggest green initiatives that Mayor Villaraigosa should resolve to achieve in the remainder of his term:
1) Completion and adoption of a sustainable city plan for Los Angeles. After years of discussion on the issue in the mayor’s office and at City Council, the Environmental Affairs Department is finally moving forward on putting together a comprehensive plan. Los Angeles has always dealt with environmental protection in a piecemeal manner. Some aspects of the city’s efforts have been exemplary (sewage treatment plant upgrades, water conservation in the last half of 2009, and solid waste recycling) while others have been poor (water recycling and stormwater pollution reduction). Los Angeles needs a comprehensive plan with numeric goals and objectives to move towards a sustainable city. To that end, city departments have put together sustainability plans, but they aren’t written to achieve overall goals and objectives. A sustainable city plan will be the umbrella plan needed to guide resource management decisions in the city, in business, and to local residents. The plan should include water use, water quality, air quality, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, city procurement, toxics use, hazardous waste, habitat and ecosystem protection, open space, integrated waste management, and more. One way to make the plan resonate with the public would be to include something like the Environmental Bill of Rights I put together a year ago. The plan should be completed this year so that Los Angeles can move forward in implementation before the end of his term.
2) Approval of the Water Quality Compliance Master Plan, coupled with implementation funding. The city’s initial approach to meeting stormwater permit requirements, water quality standards and Total Maximum Daily Loads was pretty haphazard. There wasn’t much connection between a list of projects and the achievement of water quality standards. In a bold move, the city agreed to rethink its approach and incorporate elements of the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan, the Integrated Resources Plan, a green infrastructure approach, and local watershed plans to craft a new plan with a roadmap to water quality standards compliance.
Imagine a trash-free L.A. River, Ballona Creek and Machado Lake. Imagine beaches that are safe for swimming year round. Imagine rivers and lakes that aren’t toxic to aquatic life. Those were the objectives of the Water Quality Compliance Master Plan. In response to a motion by Councilmember Rosendahl, the city has taken a scientific, engineering approach to meeting water quality standards on a watershed by watershed basis. City staff involved the community in putting together the roadmap and they are reaching out to neighborhoods to develop individual watershed management plans. They are even using a state-of-the art-model that provides them guidance with the most cost-effective ways to meet standards within a given catchment, subdrainage or watershed. All great stuff. All completed a year and a half ago. Yet this million dollar-plus comprehensive plan has been never been approved by the City Council or the Mayor.
The latest excuse for lack of approval is insufficient funding for plan implementation. It’s worth noting that the City Council has approved nearly $2 billion in TMDL implementation plans for the L.A River and Ballona Creek, yet there have been no funds allocated to implement these plans to keep trash and toxins out of the waterbodies, thereby putting the city in serious compliance jeopardy. The city has not increased stormwater pollution prevention funding in 18 years. The regulatory compliance burden today is at least $100 million to $120 million a year, yet the city is attempting to make due on less than $30 million a year of stormwater pollution abatement funds. If it weren’t for the $500M in Proposition O funds for capital improvements, there would be little progress towards cleaning up the city’s polluted watersheds and beaches.
The city can’t ignore the stormwater pollution bills any longer. Voters need to pass a parcel fee that is used to implement the water quality compliance Master Plan. Reliance on bond measures makes no sense because bonds can only be used for capital improvements, not operations and maintenance. In this economic climate, the task of passing a stormwater fee increase will be quite difficult, but L.A. needs to move forward in the next two months to have any chance of gaining revenues by 2011. Passage of the fee would require a majority vote of property owners or a two-thirds vote of the public in a general election. Although preliminary polling from last year points to support from approximately 60% of city property owners, the election will be extremely difficult given the state of the economy. Also, the question of whether or not the city should partner with the county and the other 85 cities in L.A. County — or go it alone — has yet to be resolved. Time is definitely running out. The mayor needs to firmly state that L.A. needs stormwater funding immediately to clean up our local rivers, lakes, beaches and bays.
3) City Council approval of a Low Impact Development ordinance in early 2010. The Bureau of Sanitation and Department of Public Works have drafted an LID ordinance that requires most new development and significant redevelopment to infiltrate or capture and reuse 100% of the runoff generated from a three-quarter-inch rain. The ordinance builds on existing requirements for new and redevelopment and includes a fee structure that will pay for staff time to review project proposals. In the event that infiltration or rainwater capture and use is infeasible on site, developers can implement infiltration or rainwater use projects offsite. Or they can pay an in-lieu fee for city green infrastructure projects like green streets and alleys or parking lot retrofits. The ordinance provides flexibility for developers while reducing stormwater pollution, augmenting groundwater supplies and providing greater flood control protection.
The draft ordinance is before the Board of Public Works on Jan. 15. The environmental community, landscape architects and workers, and many members of the business community have supported the ordinance, while the Building Industry Assn. has strongly opposed the ordinance despite numerous language changes based on its comments. The opposition has led to two previous delays in the board vote. If the panel passes the ordinance, then it will go to the City Council for approval, the City Attorney for final language, and back to the council for final OK.
A follow-up effort should be a green streets and alleys ordinance. The city is looking at green streets and alleys projects very seriously now, but leaders need to move past pilot projects and start making green infrastructure a priority throughout the city.
Tomorrow: more details on other green initiatives Mayor Villaraigosa should fast track in his second term
Filed under: Environmental Governance, L.A. River, Port of Los Angeles, Urban Runoff, Water Conservation, Water Plan | Tagged: Antonio Villaraigosa, city plans, Los Angeles politics, Low Impact Development ordinances, sustainability, Water Quality Compliance Master Plan |