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Los Angeles County pushes parcel tax to pay for stormwater cleanup (Photos)

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LA County wants to shift its strategy for controlling stormwater pollution, and it wants homeowners to foot the bill. A vote-by-mail election could be set for March.

Each time it rains, a clean-up crew converges on a Long Beach industrial site near the mouth of the Los Angeles River. A metal boom reaches out an arm across the river, to grab debris carried along by runoff before it hits the beach. Crew chief David Duncan says winter rain's first flush is the worst. This is the second. 

"It's not too bad, it doesn't look like we got any dogs and cats in here today. we usually end up with three to four dogs, four to five cats. Soccer balls are the number one ball that comes down."

Duncan's crew plucks trash out of the boom and tosses it in a dumpster. A dripping mattress is a tangible reminder that thousands of miles of storm pipes drain to the river, twisting under apartments and mansions, churches and big box stores and industrial parks. 

The LA County Flood Control District is proposing a parcel tax to help pay for stormwater cleanup: one goal would be to minimize the need for exactly this scene. County officials estimate potential revenue of $275 million a year. Half of that would go to regional projects, 40 percent  would go to cities that claim they don't have enough money to fight runoff now, and 10 percent would go to monitoring how well the cleanup is going.

Standing in a light rain at the Whittier Narrows recreation area, LA county engineer Hector Bordes watches geese flying over Legg Lake, which exceeds federal limits for copper, ammonia, and lead. He talks about how the water hits the nearby 710, and picks up toxins that drain straight into the man-made lake.

"You can't go in the water,"  says Bordes. "It's highly unfortunate."

He notes that the county's  stormwater system was built on now-outdated principles. "Years ago, if there was a flooding problem we just put a bunch of pipes underneath the ground, get those pipes connected to the rivers and get the water out of there," he says. "Now we think totally differently."

The  flood control district is proposing a major shift in strategy, based on capturing more rain close to where it falls, filtering it through nature, and storing it for use. The new parcel tax would require homeowners to pay on average about $50 a year toward the cause.

Some county supervisors are skeptical about the plan. Edel Vizcarra, who works on storm water issues for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, argues that the state, not property owners, should foot the bill. And he says Antonovich has questions about how the tax would be spent.

"Twenty percent of the revenue can be used for administration," says Vizcarra, who adds that "project management isn't categorized as administration so that doesn't have a cap on it." In addition, he points out that "there are going to be levels of bureaucracy set up for any project over $2 million, which is just about everything that the county does."

Environmentalists share concerns about how the money will be spent, though they do argue that the county should take action. Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Noah Garrison has criticized past regional stormwater efforts, calling them ineffective and poorly enforced.

"We really don't know what the money is ultimately going to go towards," says Garrison, "and until we see a clearer version of the selection criteria and how they're going to put this program in place, we just really don't know what impact this program will have."

The state constitution requires the parcel tax proposal go through a two-step process. First, the supervisors will hold a public hearing on Jan. 15.  Unless more than half of the county's property owners protest, the supervisors likely will schedule a mail-in vote for March. 

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