LA wants a greener and smarter future through water management

LA County’s Safe Clean Water Program to be voted on in November

Los Angeles is missing out on large opportunities to capture much-needed water as a result of its current water system, with over 100 billion gallons of water literally going down the drain each year from uncaptured rain.

In fact, about two-thirds of the water in LA County — through a very energy intensive process — is imported from outside sources in Northern California and Arizona.

That’s alarming as California as a whole continues to be drought prone, having just experienced the worst drought ever in its history between 2011 and 2017.

Between 2014 and 2015 alone, the drought ended up costing the state a whopping $5 billion.

The drought, along with aging infrastructure, has impacted the environment with about 4,200 tons of trash being found washed up along LA County beaches each year.  This doesn’t include the additional toxins like copper, zinc, and pesticides picked up along the way.

But LA County is making some efforts to smarten up its water system through plans of updating its aging infrastructure, increasing local water supply, and improving its water quality.

On Tuesday, July 17, the Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with their Safe Clean Water Program which looks to fund programs and projects that capture, clean, and conserve stormwater.

This, they hope, will help make LA more self-sufficient with water, improve water quality, and give more greenery to its communities through recreational green spaces and habitats.

The program would be funded by a parcel tax of 2.5 cents that is slated to be voted on this November, and would only apply to impermeable areas like sidewalks and concrete roofs.

Aging infrastructure

Many who drive along Southern California’s 210 or 605 freeways will notice vast areas of land with patches of greenery and occasional strands of bike paths.

What many might not know is that the wide area of land serves a large purpose in the county of Los Angeles’ efforts to save some water — acting as “spreading grounds” to hold surface water just long enough for it to filter into the soil.

Up Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Canyon is also Morris Dam, one of three dams along the canyon, and one of 14 in the Los Angeles County.

Also included in the county’s current stormwater infrastructures are a total of 27 spreading grounds, and about 500 miles of open channel — all of which were designed some 100 years ago in response to some flooding.

“A lot of people don’t know what we have this out here and it’s amazing,” said Edel Vizcarra, the Community and Government Relations spokesperson for the LACDPW, as he stood on a platform overlooking Morris Dam.

“But it really wasn’t designed to capture as much storm water as possible,” he added.  “So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get this type of system here, and optimize it.”

• Edel Vizcarra, Community and Government Relations spokesperson for LACDPW
AJPress photos by Rae Ann Varona

Originally built in the 1930s as a water supply facility for the city of Pasadena, Morris Dam is now used mostly to control floods and push for flow regulation for groundwater recharge.

Adam Walden, Principal Civil Engineer at LACDPW, said that while outdated, the foundation is already there and some of what comes from the Safe Clean Water program would go towards continuing its maintenance and upgrades.

Unlike transportation or other utilities, stormwater is a “fiscal orphan” which means there’s no  funding that goes directly towards it.

Of the importance of improving infrastructure, Walden likened the dam’s purpose to a giant savings account saying, “When water is coming in, or the money is coming in, we’re making deposits.”

“We’re putting it away, essentially for a dry day.  And the more we can replenish the aquifers, the longer we can sustain the dry periods,” said Walden.

Once the water gets in the aquifers, it can be pumped out later — like taking withdrawals from a savings account.

And like in savings accounts, Walden said, “We never want to use up all of our savings.”

Currently, the county is able to capture about 200,000 acre-feet of water.  To put into perspective, one acre foot is equivalent to the Pasadena Rose Bowl being filled up to about a foot of water.

The department believes that with updated infrastructure, the amount of water captured could be tripled.

“That’s water we should be keeping here, but it’s making its way out into the ocean because we just don’t have the infrastructure in place to try to capture,” said Vizcarra.

Back to green

Updating the county’s water system would also put the semi-arid LA area on path of being greener which apparently was the case in its early history.

In the 1850s, a large part of what is today’s West LA, for example, contained wetlands, wet meadows, and grassy prairies.  The name of Beverly Hills’ famous Rodeo Drive actually derives from its former name Rodeo de las Aguas, which translates to Round-up of the Waters.

Thirty minutes from Morris Dam is Peck Water Conservation Park which in 1975, was converted by the LA County Parks and Recreation from a gravel pit into a park area and large spreading basin where many now go to for picnics, walks, and even some cycling.

Around the park, the drought-resistant landscape symbolizes its role in water conservation with plants like Willows, Laurel Sumac, Sugar Bush, and California Buckwheat among others.

Then there is the rather large lake body nearby which despite having signs warning people not get close due to impairments, does provide some water conservation benefits.
Like much of LA County’s water infrastructure, it provides some flood control as well as some habitat for local wildlife like birds and butterflies.

“We identified this location as a potential site for increasing the groundwater recharge, providing water quality benefits, and also enhancing habitat and increasing community investments in the area,” said Aracely Lasso, also a civil engineer with the department.

She said this is the kind of project the Safe Clean Water Program can potentially fund.
“We are not only cleaning the park, we are creating habitat, we are creating wetlands for additional habitat around the park and potentially, we are also cleaning up the water that is in the lake itself,” said Lasso.  “And also of course, this enhances the park, and enhances opportunities for the community to come in and enjoy even a larger park area.”

Though in its preliminary stages of development, other projects with similar goals have been in the works such as in the Sun Valley area of the San Fernando Valley.

The Sun Valley Watershed-Rory M. Shaw Wetlands Park Project sits on a 46-acre, formerly engineered, inert landfill, that will soon turn into a multi-purpose wetlands park.

The proposed wetlands park will feature a soccer field, open space play area, picnic area, tennis and basketball courts, and even an amphitheater.

And then there’s the already working athletic field of Bassett High School in La Puente which currently sits atop a stormwater capturing system installed just a few months ago by the non-profit organization Amigos de los Rios.

“We have to do what we can.  Everything that we can to try and capture as much of the little rain that we do get as possible,” said Vizcarra.  “And that’s the Safe Clean Water Program.”

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