Monday, March 17, 2008

Bay Cleanup or Boondoggle? Sprawl-Ridden L.A. Cleans Up Its Act — or At Least Acts Like It's Cleaning Up

From the Southern Sierran, May 2006

By Rex Frankel

Undoing poor planning and fixing urban environmental problems is going to cost local taxpayers billions of dollars. Or it could pay for itself.

Certainly, the millions of dollars that various parks agencies have spent to purchase and save a ring of open spaces around the L.A. sprawl (and some scattered islands of wetlands and sagebrush) over the past 20 years have been a good investment. It’s good for residents, good for tourism, and good for air quality. It hasn’t even stopped housing construction as, instead, infill projects are taking up the slack. Why, we are even finally seeing the conversion of boarded-up downtown high-rises into high-quality housing.

And after a rocky beginning with the bank-breaking MetroRail subway, we are seeing a switch to more affordable above-ground public rail transit systems that will reach all corners of L.A.’s sprawl, giving commuters a reason to leave their cars at home.

This real-world economic analysis of our idealistic environmental goals is what helps to “sell” them to the general public. And a real-world, cost-benefit look at the latest mega-project that has come out of L.A. City’s planning agencies, the Santa Monica Bay cleanup plan, shows that if we’re not careful, the only “green” thing about this plan (officially titled the Integrated Resources Plan) is the enormous pile of money we could be shelling out for it.

Proponents claim that the first part of the plan will cost around $3 billion, with a monthly cost to each household of $96. A later part of the IRP could add $8 billion to the cost, meaning that the monthly cost could reach almost $400.

Every time it rains, huge amounts of trash, pet droppings, car brake dust, oil, grease, and smog run off the streets and into storm drains, which then pollute the ocean. This has led to unsafe water quality at several beaches for more than 30 days a year. After the federal government and clean water groups sued over violations of the federal Clean Water Act, local governments caved in and agreed to come up with a plan.

The local governments were ordered to cut the amount of pollution going into local waterways and the ocean in 10 years. But they complained about the cost, saying this compliance date would force them to build numerous expensive conventional water treatment plants. L.A. City’s engineers offered a new plan, which would clean up the Bay and also “integrate” how the city uses water resources. They promised a lot of “green” benefits, like maximizing capture and use of runoff.

Open spaces, specifically wetlands and natural streambeds, absorb these urban water pollutants at a fraction of the cost of conventional water treatment plants. And if the City can catch rainfall before it hits the streets, we might not have to continue taking water from the Owens Valley aqueduct.

For this idealistic plan, L.A. City was given 18 years by the State agency that administers the Clean Water Act, the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

But in the recently published detailed plans, largely written under the previous administration of Mayor James Hahn, it appears that this agreement could be unraveling. Instead of “green” goals, much of what this plan does is open the floodgates for more development, more pavement, and more pollution of our beaches.

The major component of the plan creates more drinking water and sewage treatment capacity, fixing one of the biggest impediments to more development of L.A. The plan heavily uses existing parks and schools as rainfall capture sites, but it has no specific plans to create new parks. The parts of the plan that would address new parks is put off to some unknown later date.
The plan mentions up to 21 major water treatment plants throughout the City, but doesn’t consider 21 less expensive treatment wetland parks.

And while this plan has been drafted, the City Council continues approving major development projects on the remaining vacant lands that could be used for treatment wetland parks, for example, 200 acres at the lowlands of Ballona Creek, which drains about a third of the City.
Economically, this plan doesn’t make sense; fortuantely, this is not our only available option. Our beaches could be cleaned up by creating a connected network of water-cleansing parks along the L.A River and Ballona, Compton, and Dominquez Creeks. The billions of dollars that would be spent on 21 huge water treatment plants could instead go toward re-greening the City that has been paved over in the last century, and at a much lower cost.

The economic boom brought by revitalized communities could be the same as in many other urban areas that have chosen to regreen the hearts of their city, (what urban planners call the “riverwalk concept”). Re-greening encourages businesses and neighborhoods to face the river instead of turning away and fencing them off. This plan could pay for itself in increased property values and tax revenues.

The bay could be cleaned up either way. The choice is between treatment plants and high taxes, or more parks and wetlands at a lower cost. The Regional Water Quality Control Board recognized this on April 6, when they rejected the City’s cleanup plans as inadequate and ordered revisions that strongly endorse “natural methods” to clean up runoff. The revised plans will be re-heard by the Water Board in July of 2007.

For more on the comparative costs of plans to cleanup Santa Monica Bay, please visit

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