By Gary Walker
A bid by Los Angeles County health officials and environmental organizations to establish a fund for new clean water initiatives has been postponed at least until next year.
The county Board of Supervisors voted to halt the Clean Water, Clean Beaches initiative at its meeting March 12, dealing a temporary setback to organizations that are dedicated to keeping stormwater runoff from entering the ocean.
The county measure would have charged parcel owners approximately $54 annually for storm water runoff cleanup.
Money from the property tax assessment would have been used for local water-saving programs as well as creating regional watershed authorities. Property owners would have had the option to vote on the proposal in a mail-in special election.
“While I have long supported efforts to ensure clean water and beaches, I have been against this measure from the beginning as it was not fair and transparent in content or process,” said Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe, the author of the motion to derail the measure. “We must start over.
“Unfortunately, our stormwater problem is exacerbated by the expensive, and often unrealistic, demands placed on us by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which increased the Total Maximum Daily Loads from two pollutants in the old permit to 33 pollutants, which would cost this region tens of billions of dollars to comply with in the next 20 years alone,” the supervisor added.
The motion, which was co-sponsored by First District Supervisor Gloria Molina, includes a target election date of June or November 2014.
County officials have said for several months that the measure is a regional response to the continuing problem of pollutants entering local and regional watersheds. Last year, according to county authorities, taxpayers spent an estimated $100 million to clean up the urban pollution.
Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Works, said his agency has been working with various school districts within the county since last year to advise them of the benefits of having a fund to offset the costs of cleaning up storm water pollution.
“This has been a project that we have been looking at for about 10 years,” Lee explained. “The county has asked us to develop and recommend a sustainable revenue source that would address storm water pollution on a local as well as a regional basis.”
Knabe was also the driving force in securing a 60-day delay in voting on the measure in January when it came before the board the first time.
Notices were sent to the public late last year but opponents of the measure said they were confusing and many residents were puzzled by the notice’s language.
“It was sent out during the holidays and to a lot of people it looked like junk mail,” argued Knabe, whose district includes Marina del Rey. “We’re finding that a lot of people threw them away.”
Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay is one of the most prominent supporters of Clean Water, Clean Beaches. Kirsten James, the environmental organization’s water quality director, was hopeful that the supervisors would approve the measure.
“There has been a lot of progress made since (the item was postponed in January),” James told The Argonaut before the hearing. She cited project selection, criteria for funding and rebate incentive programs for property owners as important additions to the proposal.
Los Angeles Waterkeeper Executive Director Elizabeth Crosson was also hopeful that Clean Water, Clean Beaches would pass.
“I’m disappointed because there’s been unabated stormwater pollution in our ocean for years,” said Crosson, whose organization was known in the past as Santa Monica Baykeeper. “But I am encouraged by the supervisors’ decision to keep it and I’m looking forward to working with a coalition of stakeholders to get this measure on the ballot.”
James disagreed with Knabe’s characterization of the water quality board’s requirements per the Clean Water Act.
“I don’t view them as unrealistic,” she said. “It does take money to put these stormwater pollution solutions in place.”
Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, opposed the county proposal.
“We want clean water and clean beaches, but there is no substantiation as to whether or how this tax will accomplish that goal,” she said.
Mar Vista resident Sherri Akers is undecided about how the funding from the initiative will be appropriated.
“I know that the need is compelling and I want to support it. I just feel like we need more definition on how the money will be managed and by whom,” said Akers, who has spearheaded a number of sustainable initiatives in Mar Vista.
“I have seen too many well intended programs with no real oversight that were neither well managed nor cost effective. I would feel a lot better if it were more clearly defined.”
James also found things to be encouraged about, despite the measure’s postponement. “The measure is still alive,” she noted. “It seemed like the vast majority of the speakers were supporters and the momentum is still going.
“It wasn’t our ideal outcome, but we’re happy that it’s moving forward and we hope that the proper outreach will be done by the county.”
Knabe reiterated his preference for a ballot initiative as opposed to a special election.
“Should this board in the future decide to move forward with a new Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure, it should be put before the voters in a general election ballot and not through a mail-in ballot, as was originally proposed,” he said.
A ballot initiative would require approval by two-thirds of voters in order for a parcel tax measure to become law, while a special election would require a simple majority.
The supervisors also asked for quarterly reports on the county’s work with stakeholders to develop a new measure that addresses the concerns voiced by the public over the last several months.