LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS: Capturing stormwater and planning for California’s future
By Bob Hertzberg
California is in a fix. The climate is changing, the state’s spring water supply — its snowpack — is gradually declining over time and we’ve entered a new era of endless cycles of drought.
That is the reality in April 2017, even after an especially wet winter that saw flooding and infrastructure failures around the state. California’s water supply will be strained in coming decades, and we need to take action right now to plan for that.
Did you know that only 15 percent of the stormwater flowing into the Los Angeles River watershed is captured and used for water supply while the rest is dumped into the ocean, a loss of billions of gallons of water each year?
That is beyond wasteful — it’s the type of stupidity that will confound future generations, the same way we are now confounded by past practices of forest clear cutting and unrestrained air pollution.
So why are we doing such a poor job of capturing stormwater? Because lawyers have created confusion on how to pay for it — and so nothing happens.
Generally, under California law, when the government wants to raise taxes, it must go to the people for a vote of approval. There are exceptions to this contained in Proposition 218, which state voters approved in 1996.
If the tax or fee relates to your property, no vote is required. So with your water bill, trash collection, sewer service — no vote is needed. But here is the problem: For stormwater, the rules are unclear.
I reread Prop. 218 and looked at the 1996 voter guide to see what was intended with regard to stormwater. The Legislative Analyst’s analysis of the proposition, published in the voter guide, said Prop. 218 exempted “Assessments where all the funds are used to pay for sidewalks, streets, sewers, water, flood control, drainage systems or, ‘vector control’ (such as mosquito control).”
Then I drilled deeper, looking at dictionary definitions for sewer water and previous court rulings, and I discovered they made no distinctions among types of dirty water — rain water, sewer water, urban runoff were all considered the same.
That all changed with a lawsuit challenging a stormwater fee in the city of Salinas. A trial judge initially ruled that stormwater is exempt from a vote of the people, but an appeals court reversed the decision, claiming there was ambiguity in the definition of “sewer water.”
I disagree. If you look at how state law and governments have dealt with stormwater over the past century, the record is clear: There is no ambiguity, except that created by the appeals court ruling. And since that ruling, the Legislature has given further definition to the meaning of “water” — and so now it is time to go back and make sure stormwater is included.
Consequently, I have introduced SB 231 to restore clarity to this issue.
Let me clear: This bill is not an end run around Prop. 13 or an attempt to unfairly increase the tax burden on Californians. My bill simply says stormwater should be treated the same way as trash, household water and sewer service, because that’s the way it has always been.
SB 231 will allow local governments to charge fees to finance projects capturing stormwater the same way they finance projects for sewer water, trash collection and water delivery systems.
We need to plan better and think longer term. No longer will we be able to meet our water needs by simply taking water from Northern California and the Colorado River.
We have to be smarter and use more sustainable practices, and we need to start right now!
That is why I have proposed legislation that would define stormwater the same as other types of dirty water. This means cities and counties could use existing infrastructure — or design new projects — that can manage storm flows to protect property, reduce pollution, and capture water for future use.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, represents the 18th District and is chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.
Note: This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on April 23, 2017.