Mark Pestrella on LA County’s Transformative Stormwater Plan

Mark Pestrella, in his first year as Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works,  has brought broad vision to the historic regional agency. Now, he shares an update on the county’s priorities, namely, a proposed climate resilient funding plan for stormwater infrastructure that would both invest in innovative ideas and improve LA’s existing capture/storage system. The proposal will eventually appear on the LA County ballot, and has been called crucial to the success of the Los Angeles River revitalization—another complex county project Pestrella unpacks in this special TPR interview.

The LA County Public Works has begun taking community input on its Safe, Clean Water infrastructure program. Could you share the program’s goals?

Mark Pestrella: It’s an exciting day for us to finally bring forth this innovative infrastructure program proposal. We are proud to sponsor this program to improve the water resiliency of LA County by increasing our stormwater capture portfolio.

Our goal is to improve and optimize the county’s existing flood protection and water conservation systems through a capital improvement program for new infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure will be in the old style, where we capture water in large ponds that infiltrate it into the ground, and others will be newer ideas like Green Streets, where we use biological treatment methods to capture, clean, and conserve water within our street system. The program will also encourage private investment by making low-impact development a key component.

All of this is in the service of capturing and utilizing stormwater as a resource for drinking water supply—and improving the quality of surface water in Los Angeles County.

Elaborate on the new portfolio investments the program is likely to fund, and on the growing role the County’s Public Works Department is assuming in stormwater capture and management. 

LA County Public Works operates the Flood Control District for Los Angeles County, which covers the greater Los Angeles Basin to the county line. There are about 2.1 million parcels of land within the district, and as you can imagine, it’s varied in geography, demographics, and more.

We have proudly protected the community from potentially devastating flood damage since the 1930s. The infrastructure that was installed at that time—iconic systems like the LA and San Gabriel rivers; 2,500 miles of underground storm drains; 14 major dams in the San Gabriel Mountains, which currently capture one third of our drinking water supply; and 27 spreading facilities—had the coequal goals of flood protection and groundwater replenishment. We want to optimize our existing system and distribute additional stormwater to new infrastructure across the Los Angeles Basin.

Each year when it rains, about 100 billion gallons of water makes its way to the ocean and is wasted. We think that with new distributed infrastructure, we could catch about a third of that water before it gets to the sea. That would almost double our current annual stormwater capture and groundwater replenishment rates.

The infrastructure we’re proposing now is unique. In general, to capture water, you’ve got to slow it down, and you’ve got to have a place to store it. Not having gigantic pieces of land in Los Angeles anymore, we’re now looking to store water at the neighborhood level. In some cases, that means rain barrels on properties, and on a larger scale, it means park-sized cisterns—where we put a storage facility underneath a park to capture and store neighborhood rainwater. In a sense, we’re trying to un-pave LA. We’re trying to make communities throughout LA more porous.

There are a lot of interesting ideas about improving surface water quality using our existing plumbing, as well. One thing we’re looking into, which was unheard of just a few years back, is connecting the county’s stormwater capture system with its wastewater system to divert polluted urban runoff to treatment plants.

This past January, a resiliency panel at VerdeXchange 2018 hosted public works representatives from Houston and Mexico City. Given your experience with natural disasters, how challenging is it for public officials to entice the public to think in advance about the value and importance of strategic investments in water infrastructure to their quality of life?

This is a big part of how we define resiliency. The folks in Houston did a great job in terms of responding to the emergency they faced. What happened there was partly due to missed opportunities in land-use planning for the safety of the community. But at the end of the day, no community could withstand the dramatic amount of rainfall they saw there.

Climate change is having a significant impact on the way rain is delivered throughout the United States, and our infrastructure today is not intended to move the rainfall from a 1,000-year storm through a community.

Here in Los Angeles, we’re also seeing dramatic shifts in weather patterns and rainfall that we believe are due to climate change. We’re experiencing a bipolar climate, where we either see the extreme weather event of droughts—spells of dryness and heat, where we’re not replenishing groundwater and dry plant life is accelerating our fire cycle—or the extreme weather event of highly intense rainstorms, where the amount of water we’d expect to get over a long period falls all at once.

When you run a system like ours as long as we have without any major flooding or damage to properties, like in Houston, people tend to start taking it for granted. But these extreme weather events have increased public awareness of the importance of their water system. They’re becoming more aware of where their drinking water comes from and how scarce it can be in our area. They’re aware that floods and fire could impact them.

It’s unfortunate that this is what it takes, but events like those in Houston, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico do help us get people focused on resiliency. We’ve been talking to the public about this issue from a public health and wellness perspective, and taking the opportunity to ask what more we can do.

With the Safe Clean Water Program, we’re essentially saying: We think there’s more that can be done, and there’s an innovative and environmentally sensitive way to do it that meets the needs of our communities. We know, and the public knows, that we could do more. We’re asking them if they want to pay to improve the resilience of their water systems. 

Specifically, how are you reaching out to all 88 cities in LA County so as to better align with their priorities, find common ground, and gain their support for your proposed water resiliency investments?

It has been a long journey, and the County Board of Supervisors deserves the credit for their leadership over the years. This board in particular has focused resources on collaboration across the region, not just the unincorporated areas. The direction from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, our champion on the measure, to get out and communicate has been fantastic.

One common issue facing all the cities, and the unincorporated county, is the need to improve the quality of water in our lakes, rivers, streams, and the ocean. We’ve been grappling with that for many years. Other commonalities are the fire, flooding, and water supply issues facing every city in the region.

Also, all cities are obligated to comply with mandates from the federal government under the Clean Water Act. Those requirements will cost the region something like $20 billion over 20 years, which is a huge obligation.

Cities in Los Angeles County have a permit that requires them to capture runoff within their city. They are allocated a certain amount of water to be captured, cleaned, and conserved. Across the 88 cities, elected officials are facing a funding gap to meet those requirements, and they’re looking for relief. That gives us a place to start when we talk to elected officials about the Safe, Clean Water program.

The Safe, Clean Water Program proposes to create a capital improvement program that would capture water before it leaves cities, and then put it back into the ground. It also proposes to return a percentage of the money directly back to cities. This would help cities both meet federal regulatory requirements and provide for unique projects that contribute to the greening of their urban areas. We’re seeing a nice alignment among urban greening, combating climate change, and complying with local obligations under the Clean Water Act.

I really believe that this is the time for Los Angeles to move forward with a program like the Safe, Clean Water program. Not only is it needed, but it has also matured to the point where we have really good projects ready to go—as well as the willingness, understanding, and support of the community to get something off the ground. 

Could you address the planning efforts underway on the LA River’s revitalization? At VerdeXchange, Dan Lafferty from your department explained how Public Works is beginning an update to the River Master Plan. What are the goals of this new master plan?

This planning effort covers the 51-mile length of the river. It incorporates 23 municipalities, and a population of about 1 million people living within a mile of the river. Moreover, we are linking this plan to more than 114 planning documents that only look at sections of the river and uniting them in one comprehensive river plan.

Learn more at The Planning Report