Los Angeles’s Proposition O

April 23, 2014

In 2004, the Los Angeles, CA, bond referendum called Proposition O raised $500 million for stormwater quality improvements. Not only is that big in Los Angeles (L.A.), but it’s an unprecedented sum for any US municipality. According to environmental advocate Mark Gold, when Proposition O was approved 10 years ago, it represented a milestone for water quality for L.A. and Santa Monica Bay. Even today, a decade later, as the last of the funds flow from the coffers into various projects, early proponents like Gold retain the faith that Proposition O will yield substantial benefits far into the future.

Far from media portrayals that cast the city’s image as one of disconnected bungalows strung along a network of concrete freeways with a high-and-dry cement riverbed best suited to Hollywood car chases, fight scenes, and clandestine meetings, Gold says concern over water quality “runs very deep in the city of Los Angeles.” Gold–the first employee of the non-profit organization Heal the Bay and now a college professor and the associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Institute of the Environment and Sustainability–affirms that L.A. residents actually “love nature.”

He says it’s only people outside of L.A. who have the misconception that it is “some kind of desert.”

“That’s not the case,” he says. “It’s a Mediterranean climate” that rests in the midst of beautiful beaches and oceanfronts. “Water is part of the culture here; everyone loves going to the beach to escape on weekends. It’s part of the culture.”

A Sandy Beginning
It all began on the beaches. That’s where people began making the connection between water quality and public policy. They began to notice the beaches nearby were a mess. With the Los Angeles River and other waterways leading to Santa Monica Bay strewn with trash, it was easy for Gold to see some of the roots of the problem, and people and organizations in the city began clamoring for more regulation, not less.

Gold’s organization, Heal the Bay, among others, took their concerns to court to persuade EPA to issue specific regulations to control pollution in Los Angeles waterways, leading to the final numeric total maximum daily load (TMDL) mandate for “zero trash” in the L.A. River, as well as other stringent water-quality standards.

Melanie Winter, the founder and director of The River Project, an L.A.-based environmental advocacy group fighting to clean up the Los Angeles River, was also active on water-quality issues during the time. She says that, in response to Clean Water Act requirements, the city began to put together an integrated resources plan to deal with sewer overflows during major storms, gradually building a resume for broader stormwater initiatives.

According to Winter, officials began having conversations on ways to solve the city’s overall stormwater quality problems, with input from the community. These discussions generated “a very collaborative effort between the Bureau of Sanitation and other city agencies, bringing in the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that had been party to the litigation, and local neighborhood council leaders to get stakeholder participation.”

Winter adds, “There was excellent facilitation. It wasn’t just a one-way dialogue–“˜Here’s what we’re doing, thanks for your comments.’ It was really an ongoing dialogue, and stakeholders from the neighborhood councils learned a lot about what the city agencies do. They were even able to look at the budgeting and the decision matrix, and the NGOs were really able to get the agencies to understand our perspectives and the way we would like to see them try things. There was good back and forth, and growth on both sides. There have been some really good relationships along the way that have influenced a lot of things that have happened since, including Proposition O, the green streets initiative, and a lot of other things.”

Bond to the Rescue
As a rationale for the $5 million bond proposal, the Proposition O website states, “Federal mandates initiated in 1999 established that over 60 water quality regulations would be adopted over the subsequent 13 years.” These regulations would require the city to implement plans to remove trash from the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek, and to reduce bacteria and toxics in Santa Monica Bay, Marina Del Rey, and Harbor and Cabrillo Beach. Pending regulations also required bacteria and toxics removal from the Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek, and urban lakes.

Gold says L.A. officials took a proactive approach once the federal requirements were established and began crafting a strategy to meet those goals.

Jan Perry, now general manager of the Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department, says that as a city councilwoman from South L.A. in 2004, she was an early supporter of stormwater quality efforts. She could see the need for a major funding source from the outset to help the city comply with the Clean Water Act.

The bonds sought through Proposition O were to be financed by an increase in property tax rates of around 1%, amounting to about a $34-per-year increase for the average home assessed at $350,000. The funds would be directed to capital projects ranging from installing catch basin inserts “to installation of storm water/runoff diversion structures to redirect dry weather flows from the streets to the sewer system for cleansing and treatment, and construction of, and purchase of land for, basins and structures throughout the City to capture, retain and treat polluted storm water and to beneficially reuse the water for irrigation at open space and parks,” as stated by the website dedicated to the program.

Additional initiatives envisioned for the funding included developing greenbelt areas to conserve and treat stormwater, creating “water-cleansing landscapes” and parkways along and surrounding the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek, and developing parkways to provide multiple benefits such as flood control, habitat preservation, and recreation.

Who Hates Clean Water?
As Gold points out, L.A. officials took the initiative to begin dealing with the city’s stormwater quality issues without the need for prodding by an adversarial legal process. This isn’t always the case; Fernando Pasquel, vice president and national director of stormwater and watershed management for the firm Arcadis, says a court action often turns out to be the driving force behind many water-quality improvement projects nationwide. He says the other major driver seems to be the “requirement to protect drinking water sources or supplies.” Either way, Pasquel says, generally that cost is going to “get passed on to the voters,” and that kind of news is not always welcome.

While it doesn’t seem rational that anyone would object to clean water, most people don’t want to vote to raise their own taxes, so moving the proposal along to a successful vote would require overcoming that hurdle. Most of all in a bond referendum, Gold says, voters want to be assured the money raised by bonds would be going to an important cause, which presented the bigger quandary: how to make a strong case for a complex set of measures people had never heard of. While he didn’t feel there would be much of an audience at the layperson level for a detailed explanation of stormwater management, he thought if people didn’t understand exactly what the money was going for they would have been much less likely to vote yes.

Although Arcadis was not involved in the Los Angeles Proposition O campaign, Pasquel says the firm has assisted many municipalities in the US and abroad in major stormwater quality improvement projects, from their inception through funding and implementation. He understands the dilemma.

He explains one of the challenges when introducing a stormwater quality issue to the public “is to get people to really understand the benefits of stormwater management, reaching out and having a clear message through elected officials–understanding why stormwater is important. We call it a forgotten utility. To most people it’s invisible, the infrastructure that manages it is underground and people don’t understand what it does.” He says you can talk about lawsuits and regulatory requirements until you are blue and nobody is going to care. “From a layperson perspective, you need to tie it in to something people can understand such as aesthetics, plants, animals, fisheries, sustainable programs, job creation–it can actually create jobs–and linking those benefits to social benefits.”

Although Pasquel says lawsuits, regulations, and mandates might be what get public officials to focus on stormwater issues, he concedes it might be a bit much to expect the average citizen to get excited about meeting the terms of a Clean Water Act consent decree or a TMDL requirement. Yet, in order to make a successful bid for public funding, it’s important that the public has not only a clear understanding of the individual projects, but also a clear picture of the local stormwater program itself, including its goals and functions. Pasquel admits it may it take a certain level of creativity to take the regulations, the research, and the law and develop a narrative that people at large can relate to. However, as the author of a 1998 article for the Water Environment Federation titled “50 Ways to Fund a Watershed Management Program,” Pasquel says he’s seen it happen.

“Some of the larger cities that are under consent decrees have done a good job of not going to the public with a list of the items in the consent decree, but developing green infrastructure plans or stormwater programs where they can identify the benefits of the program–not only in meeting the lawsuit requirements, but other environmental and social benefits that people can relate to, and start understanding why you need to pay for stormwater, and why stormwater is a utility operation.”

For example, Pasquel says, success is more likely “if you can find a way to describe the benefits of a large wetlands park so that people see there is value in the signage, in the new jobs created in stormwater management, in the educational opportunities, or you can show the value from a green streets program in terms of better aesthetics and increasing property values.” On the other hand he says, “Whether a bioswale is collecting one inch or two inches of the 10 year storm–that’s not something people outside of the field are going to get excited about.”

Nonetheless, contemplating $500 million for a utility of which the public has the barest of knowledge might still be a stretch, and at the time Proposition O came about, stormwater bonds faced the same problem an outsider with new ideas might have reaching out to voters: lack of name recognition.

Captivating Fans for Water
With the image of a big election night down the road and just months to prepare, Gold recalls, a collaborative spirit took over the push to move the initiative forward. He attributes a lot of the initial enthusiasm to the efforts of Ron Deaton, who was then chief legislative analyst for the city council and had worked in government for over 30 years. “He went for it in a big way,” says Gold, and brought along many colleagues in government, including two members of the city council who became strong advocates for the proposal. He also drafted a thorough technical analysis of the proposition, which he posted on the website Lapropo.org, for people who would want to wade into the details.

Perry, Gold, and the other proponents agreed that talking about TMDLs or technical requirements of the Clean Water Act in their broader promotional message would be more likely to bore people than to build excitement for the cause. They concluded that the key was putting a face on the proposition. The face they chose was that of the everyday person.

According to Gold, proponents of Proposition O tapped into Los Angeles residents’ love of nature to craft a message that would resonate without placing blame, and without alienating voters by reciting a litany of difficult problems or fearsome specters of the harmful effects of poor water quality. “They kept it positive,” he says, and 10 years later he’s still amazed at how well it worked.

The campaign established a nonprofit organization that raised $1 million to push the referendum forward. Perry says the organization also established a “sort of speakers bureau” to recruit ambassadors for the proposal to reach different audiences in the community, illustrating the connections between water quality and stormwater and showing what Proposition O could achieve. Direct mail and TV advertisements also contributed to the promotional effort. But Perry says what really got things heated up was when the campaign got personal. One of the most effective advertisements, which she says she remembers to this day, featured a local surfer–nobody famous, but someone who frequented a particular beach.

“He was an older gentleman, and in the ad he comes out of the water with his surf board under his arm and he just talks about why clean water is important to him. And the interesting thing is that a lot of people knew him. It created a lot of community-based awareness and discussion.”

The message of the campaign was simple: if you like clean water, you’ll vote for Proposition O. Gold, Perry, and Winter agree that one of the great strengths of the campaign was that it was definitely an effort by regular people in the community and not driven by big names or celebrities.

Although Gold says the usual ballot initiative in L.A. takes over three years before it gets anywhere, Proposition O got on the ballot and passed by an overwhelming margin of 76% of the vote in just six months–virtually unheard of, and proof that people care about stormwater once they understand.

Multiple Measures for Multiple Goals
In the 10 years since voters authorized the $500 million capital program, the city has dedicated that money to projects ranging from drainage improvements to installation of catch basin inserts to major new facilities that provide water treatment, aesthetic beauty, recreational opportunities, and more. Although $500 million on paper sounds like a lot of money, it would still not be enough to cover all of the potential water-quality projects being considered in the city. City leaders wanted a project selection process that would make sure the voters would get the best value and desired outcomes for their money, but they wanted to be innovative, inclusive, and accountable as well.

Their plan, rather than pitting each potential project head to head on particular objective measures, such as their efficacy in reducing certain types of pollution, encouraged implementing projects that could be designed to meet multiple goals. A citizen advisory committee, authorized to provide oversight of the bond measure, along with a Proposition O administrative oversight committee, worked to develop a system to evaluate prospective projects over a spectrum of criteria. Projects that would meet multiple goals, had broad support, and addressed important issues emerged through process of deliberation.

For instance, Gold compares two major water treatment facilities that combine recreation and habitat with aesthetic sensibilities: one at the historic Echo Park Lake and the other a newly created South Los Angeles Wetlands Park. Both succeeded in acquiring Proposition O funding, although Gold says they are very different from one another. According to Gold, the Echo Park Lake renovation serves a large watershed, providing massive opportunities for percolation of stormwater, as well as providing a pleasant aesthetic benefit to park visitors. By contrast, the site of the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park was once heavily used as an industrial facility operated by the transit department, and its potential for infiltrating stormwater was severely limited by the concern over the possibility of encountering subsurface contamination left over from its prior uses. Instead, this project emphasizes reuse of water as a supply for onsite water features and visual amenities.

In the final analysis, Gold says that for sheer volume of environmental benefit, the Echo Park Lake renovation delivers higher impact. However, during the selection process, potential projects were evaluated not just on water-quality impacts alone, but also on more individualized terms that consider a range of criteria, from flood control impacts, community support, and the potential for beneficial use of stormwater onsite. This approach gave smaller-scale project initiatives like the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park, as a much-needed amenity in an underserved community, a better chance at winning approval.

Perry is happy with that result. She says the wetlands park, which she championed as a representative of the South Los Angeles district, opened to the public in 2009 and has proved to be a very popular destination for her former constituents and for Los Angeles residents in general. On top of that, she feels it’s been an inspiration to watch the project take shape. “The more we bring these Prop O projects online, the more it seems to stimulate interest in developing similar projects. For me, this wetland is not only a wetland, but it’s also an outdoor classroom situated across from a high school and around the corner from a junior high school. So it provides more than just an opportunity for recreation as a heavily used park. I think the thing that’s interesting about stormwater management is that it has provided a more expeditious, more environmentally conscious, more cost-effective way to develop public works projects,” she says.

Although less viscerally exciting, Gold counts among Proposition O’s most influential projects the eight dry-weather runoff diversions installed to protect Santa Monica Bay beaches from concentrated pollutants, such as bacteria carried by dry-weather flows. He also makes special note of a separate project under Proposition O that financed 50,000 catch basin inserts deployed throughout the city to meet the TMDL goal of eliminating trash from the Los Angeles River.

Altogether, the city of L.A. approved 36 stormwater and water-quality projects through the proposition; 20 projects received funding, and 19 of those have been completed. In August 2013, groundbreaking ceremonies ushered in the start of construction on what will be the 20th and final major Proposition O project, phase 1 of the Wilmington Drain and Machado Lake renovation. This $120 million project is intended to remove contaminated sediment, restore habitat, and create a parkside destination at one of the few remaining surface steams in the area.

Building on a Legacy
Gold says Proposition O was “the right thing at the right time.” It passed during a time of optimism before the economic crisis of the “Great Recession”–a performance he says might be more challenging to repeat today. However, he says there is nonetheless an urgent need to find a dedicated funding source to pay for the operation and maintenance of the capital improvements, parks, and devices financed by Proposition O, and for the city’s stormwater management operations in general.

“The hope was to get in a new revenue stream,” which in today’s economic and political climate could be tough, but not impossible, he says. To illustrate, he notes that nearby Santa Monica recently succeeded in voting in a stormwater fee derived from a parcel tax; however, it was a hard-fought battle won by the slimmest of margins. According to Gold, the votes in favor surpassed the two-thirds super majority needed to become law by a mere 100 votes.

Nonetheless, Perry says Proposition O has a stellar reputation in Los Angeles, with residents enjoying its benefits even if they are not familiar with the exact source of the funds that made their parks, clean water, and cleaner streets a reality. The bill’s author and former chair of the city council, Eric Garcetti, has gone on to become mayor.

With the Lake Machado project, the biggest and the last, now underway, Gold continues to attend the monthly meetings of Proposition O’s citizen advisory committee as he has from the beginning, providing oversight to ensure that the funds are spent exactly as they were intended and that the projects are on the mark to achieve the desired ends. He has been one of the members of that committee from the start. “The high level of accountability is a smart move,” he says. “People want to know their dollars are going to good use.”

He says, overall, the city took a common-sense approach. “You need to inspire, educate, and inform a wide variety of stakeholders, and getting everyone to work together is essential.”

For all their efforts, Gold says projects initiated under Proposition O have addressed about a quarter of Los Angeles’ stormwater quality issues, which he says is an impressive start. To be sure, for the enormous task, the $500 million, or around $50 per person, is not a lot of money when you are talking about tackling decades of long-entrenched problems, in an area spanning 4,083 square miles and housing close to 10 million people.

Melanie Winter says that in addition, Proposition O “has had some degree of impact in getting people excited about water quality.” On the other hand, she says it might have raised hopes a little higher than what could be achieved. “People were very excited about Prop O because the message was that it would improve their community and improve the local drinking water supply, and not every community has seen that play out.”

Perry also says there is a lot more to be done. She says projects like those undertaken through Proposition O don’t substitute for the major infrastructure upgrades that will still be needed to keep pace with the growing city. In the meantime, however, she says clean water projects like those undertaken with Proposition O funding “can help reduce the load on a traditional infrastructure approach, and they can do it faster because you can get them up and running faster.”

According to Gold, the bond proposition’s geographic limitations–dealing only with infrastructure in L.A. proper–might also dilute the impact such measures could have. He said the kinds of projects that could coordinate watershed-wide stormwater efforts among the dozens of jurisdictions around Los Angeles–each with differing policies and perspectives but all inevitably influencing the quality of the receiving waters of the Los Angeles River and Santa Monica Bay–would most likely require a level of federal funding much greater than what seems to be available today.

Still, Winter says, “The one-half billion dollar investment was well worth it. It helped address certain specific issues, it helped us develop some innovative ways to treat stormwater at the neighborhood level, and it allowed us to pilot and try out new approaches on a neighborhood scale that could be replicated.

“Not every issue can be addressed at the ballot box, and not every issue is going to have an engineering solution,” she adds. “˜We need to address supply, climate change, and all of that.”

In part as a result of Proposition O projects, using green infrastructure in the neighborhoods, and ongoing communications and outreach programs by groups like The River Project, Winter says, “People are making those connections and bringing it back to their very own property.” But, she says it’s going to take a lot more than installing a few rain barrels or rain gardens.

Although she says water rates for most people are still low and many people in the region still take the availability of ready sources of clean water and drinking water for granted, southern California, like many other places, is “moving into an era of post-water-abundance. People need to understand what that means, and why it is, and how to adjust.”

She adds, “We’re at an interesting point moving between the 20th and the 21st century in stormwater management. The most cost-effective way to go about it is to make better land-use decisions from the start, rather than trying to fix things later when they are a lot more work.”

Gold echoes her sentiment. “A lot of what has to be done is just changing the way we do things in general.” 
About the Author

David C. Richardson

David C. Richardson is a frequent contributor to Forester Media publications.

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Photos courtesy Chino Basin Water Reclamation District.
From left: Matt Hacker, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Marco Tule, Inland Empire Utilities Agency Board President; Gil Aldaco, Chino Basin Water Conservation District Board Treasurer; Curt Hagman, San Bernardino County Supervisor; Elizabeth Skrzat, CBWCD General Manager; Mark Ligtenberg, CBWCD Board President; Kati Parker, CBWCD Board Vice President; Teri Layton, CBWCD Board member; Amanda Coker, CBWCD Board member.