The Board of Supervisors moved forward Tuesday on two plans aimed at increasing local water supplies in a time of sustained drought and pressure from federal regulators.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl authored two motions, one seeking to coordinate the capture of stormwater runoff countywide and the other calling for a net zero water ordinance for unincorporated areas of the county.
Federal and state regulators are tired of waiting for the county and its 88 cities to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, Kuehl said, adding that penalties could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We’re required to do it,” Kuehl said, proposing a Drought Resiliency Work Plan focused on capturing rainfall and preventing runoff of trash and toxic substances.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich said water conservation efforts should focus on building new reservoirs funded with state water bonds already approved by voters.
Kuehl said a broader approach was needed and she was “trying to find the fairest way to pick up this tab because we’re not going to avoid it.”
Antonovich was concerned that the drought plan would look too much like a 2013 effort to fund stormwater projects through a fee on property owners, despite protests to the contrary.
“The property owners will still have to pay,” Antonovich said, adding that would hurt seniors on fixed incomes.
In March 2013, the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure, championed by former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky as a way to pay for stormwater runoff projects, was defeated on a 4-1 board vote.
The failed measure proposed an annual fee — estimated at $54 for a typical single-family home — to pay for green infrastructure.
Opponents objected to the fee, calling it a tax on rain, as well as to the allocation of funding, selection of projects and the process for approving the measure.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said, “It wasn’t a pretty picture … three years ago … We’re trying to get it right now.”
The board directed the Department of Public Works to report back in 45 days with a plan and to submit a recommendation for funding the plan 90 days out.
No details of any plan or funding mechanism were outlined in Kuehl’s motion, co-authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis. However, the board vote anticipates submitting the plan to voters in November if adopted by the board.
Kuehl also proposed requiring new housing and commercial developments to show no net increase in total water consumption.
A net-zero water ordinance or water-neutral development could be achieved with drought-tolerant landscaping, low-flow plumbing fixtures and water recycling, Kuehl said.
If projects can’t get to zero on their own, developers could achieve the goal by subsidizing projects to retrofit water use at schools or hospitals.
Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the net-zero motion, said the county needed to set an example with regard to water conservation.
“In some circles, water is becoming more precious … than oil,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Supervisor Don Knabe expressed concern about the ordinance’s impact on the county’s efforts to expand the supply of affordable housing and solve a crisis of homelessness.
“Housing is a huge issue … this could have a dramatic impact on our ability to proceed,” Knabe said.
Solis said there are “ways that we can work around this so that we don’t put a squash on housing.”
Developers disagreed, saying the ordinance would slow new construction and hike home prices.
Kuehl said Santa Monica is among the cities that have already adopted a net-zero water ordinance and new construction has increased nonetheless.
Several business advocates urged the board to slow down and do additional studies on the economic impact of a net-zero ordinance.
“This appears to be another attempt to ram through legislation in a rush,” said Dustan Batton of the Los Angeles County Business Federation or BizFed.
Kuehl objected to the suggestion that more research should be done before moving forward with an ordinance.
“The time for studies is done … it’s pretty much been studied to death,” Kuehl said, adding that her motion anticipated a year-long process for crafting the ordinance, allowing for input from developers and everyone else affected.
Environmental activists agreed, with a Heal the Bay representative saying it was unfair for residents to have to severely cut back water use to meet state goals while major construction projects move forward “without any clear accounting” for their drain on local water supplies.
The board’s vote was 4-0 to proceed in crafting an ordinance over the next year, with Antonovich abstaining.