If regulatory issues can be solved, stormwater can be a valuable resource, says Monrovia City Manager Oliver Chi
Storm water is the runoff generated when precipitation from rain and snowmelt flows over land or impervious surfaces and into water bodies. It is often considered a nuisance because it mobilizes pollutants such as motor oil and trash, and is a major source of pollution to rivers, lakes, and the ocean. However, if properly managed, stormwater could be a water supply resource.
At the San Gabriel Valley Water Forum held earlier this year, Oliver Chi, the City Manager for the city of Monrovia, discussed the challenges and the potential of stormwater capture and use in Los Angeles County.
Oliver Chi began by noting that his mayor, Tom Adams, says that the city’s most important job is to deal with water and wastewater, because if those aren’t working, it’s the cities that get called. “Water is a commodity we all need; it’s a resource that we all need,” he said.
Stormwater regulations are managed by the State Water Resources Control Board, and the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards. The San Gabriel Valley is governed by the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board. Cities are involved in the discussio
n because the Regional Water Quality Control Boards requires all municipal permittees to achieve stormwater cleanup standards through the MS-4 permit, he said.
MS-4 stands for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System. “The permit really has nothing to do with sewers, though,” explained Mr. Chi. “What it has to do with is managing, capturing, treating stormwater, and how we are going to address stormwater issues moving forward.”
The MS-4 permit has been the genesis for a lot of the things that happen every day, such as regulations against dumping pool water into the gutter, or street sweeping that occurs now regularly. Those are some of the things that have been implemented because of the MS-4 permit, he pointed out. “Currently, a lot of cities have implemented brand new regulations and development ordinances that require new development to retain all of the water that you capture rain events on site, so that’s new regulations that are going into effect across LA County,” he said.
The current MS-4 permit requires all Los Angeles County municipal jurisdictions to eliminate all non-stormwater discharges, implement best management practices to prevent or minimize stormwater pollution, and enforce maximum pollutant limits through the establishment of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL). TMDLs set limits for how much of a pollutant a waterway can receive and still remain in compliance with Clean Water Act standards. “This most recent permit requires that all of the permittees coordinate processes to get everybody into compliance with TMDL limits, so basically we have to clean the stormwater of all pollutants,” he said.
With the new permits, there is a process that if compliance cannot be achieved right now (and the technical reality is that no city or permittee can, noted Mr. Chi), the permittee can choose to develop either an Enhanced Watershed Management Program (EWMP) or a Watershed Management Program (WMP). Mr. Chi noted that throughout LA County, there have been 7 different WMPs and twelve different EWMPs, for a total of 19 plans that cover all the watersheds in LA County. Each plan outlines a series of specific stormwater projects for every watershed in LA County to achieve stormwater TMDL limits. One of the key strategies for stormwater pollution reduction is utilization of subsurface and above ground projects to capture and treat stormwater.
He presented a slide depicting the different types of stormwater projects. “There’s a lot of below ground infiltration projects or basically digging big holes, building big reservoirs so you can capture stormwater and better infiltrate it; and above ground stormwater retention; green street technologies are also real popular in all of these WMP and EWMP plans,” Mr. Chi said.
“Through these 19 different WMPs and EWMPs, what has been created is a number of different projects, and those project listings incorporate a variety of different plans,” he said. “Those projects though are really expensive. For example, in LA County, throughout all of those 19 plans that have been developed, the project listing currently, they are estimated to cost $20.5 billion. For perspective, Prop 1, the statewide bond, that was $7.5 billion for the entire state, so in LA County alone, we have $20.5 billion worth of projects that we’re supposed to work towards implementing to clean stormwater.”
Mr. Chi pointed out that the group that the City of Monrovia belongs to has put together a plan that includes 10 regional stormwater projects and 436 lane miles of green streets that should be created at a cost of $1.4 billion; ongoing maintenance costs have been estimated at a little over $13 million. Mr. Chi noted that for the city of Monrovia, the general fund operating annual budget is roughly $40 million per year. “Just for our EWMP plan, our stormwater projects are estimated for Monrovia to cost $231.1 million,” he pointed out. “It’s just not practicable.”
Meeting the time frames is also a challenge. Mr. Chi noted that they have until 2028 to put these projects in place, but it has caused a lot of dissension because these aren’t practicable costs. “We can’t afford to really do everything that’s articulated because in our EWMP group, we don’t have an extra $1.4 billion, and LA county municipalities don’t have $20.5 billion laying around to spend on just this issue.”
Mr.Chi noted that the cost to the average homeowner would be over $1300 per year in order to fund these types of improvements. “So when you factor all of that together, this current funding gap really means that it is not practicable for us to be able to implement all of the plans that have been identified currently,” he said. “But what it provides us is an opportunity here to be able to more closely work with the regulatory agencies to develop a more common sense based framework where we can really look at stormwater as an asset, and look at these projects that we have to build as potentially a way for us to capture, infiltrate, and use a lot more of that stormwater.”
Although there are exceptions, Mr. Chi said that generally speaking, almost all cities agree that the state does have the right to regulate stormwater, but it’s an issue that continues to play out in court. “The regional board has in the past and they will in the future fine jurisdictions that are out of compliance, and so against that backdrop, right now LA County is pretty far ahead of the rest of the state. The state has directed all of the other 9 regional water quality control boards throughout the state, that they should look at LA as the model and that every jurisdiction moving forward needs to develop these stormwater plans.”
“What that creates for us is a reality that we have to address,” he said. “We can continue to fight, or we can try to be collaborative and use this as an opportunity to really enhance our interests.”
The main interest is water supply, Mr. Chi said. “It’s a tremendous asset … We’re so reliant here in the San Gabriel Valley on groundwater, from that perspective, is there a better way where we can utilize our requirements to clean up stormwater in a way that will boost our water supply? … Stormwater is potentially one of the possible tools for us to fix this overall water reliability issue in the San Gabriel Valley.”
If regulatory issues are resolved, the MS-4 permit could benefit water supply tremendously, he said, noting that the National Resources Defense Council published a study that indicated that in LA County, every inch of rain generates 253,000 acre-feet of stormwater that could potentially be captured. In Mr. Chi’s EWMP group, they have estimated and developed plans to capture 774,000 acre-feet of water per year. The LA DWP’s 2015 Urban Water Management Plan said they’d like to capture 258,000 acre-feet per year of stormwater for reuse.
“That’s an asset that we can really use,” he said. “If we can be strategic in working with our partners at the county and working with our water agencies, can we develop better plans that are more cost effective and that allows us then to utilize that stormwater in a way that’s more practicable and more useful for all of us? That seems to be the opportunity we have, if we can work through all of the potential regulatory issues and all of the legal issues and political issues that are associated with stormwater.”
Mr. Chi said that in his group, they are working on developing a management and governance structure. “Governance structures a lot of times determine whether or not strategies and management structures succeed or fail,” he said. “In our EWMP group, the Rio Hondo San Gabriel River group, we have eight jurisdictions; it includes the cities of Arcadia, Sierra Madre, Bradbury, Monrovia, Duarte, Azusa, also the County of the Los Angeles and the LA County Flood Control Districts. You can imagine, there’s a lot of different voices in the room. Each one of those cities has five different city council members. The County has their own reporting structure and it’s really complicated. Getting everyone on the same page in that structure to say, here’s what we’re going to do, that’s really difficult. Stormwater isn’t the only thing that cities and the county and the flood control district are working on, so what we’ve been working towards the last couple of months in our group is forming a joint powers authority to really manage stormwater issues moving forward.”
WMPs and EWMPs force a sub-regional approach because it’s based on watersheds,” he said. “It forces different jurisdictions within watersheds to come together. Those watersheds have no natural organization to what our existing governance structures look like, and so for our group, we thought through if we’re going to be proactive and working towards a solution, one of the things we need to think through is how are we going to manage all of these things moving forward. We think coming together with a new governance structure to deal with stormwater is probably the most effective way to cut through all of the issues that confront us when we have multiple jurisdictions trying to solve complicated problems.”
All these ideas that have been developed for stormwater capture are all great ideas, but we need to be realistic, Mr. Chi emphasized. “We only have so much money; there are only so many resources that we can tap into to fund everything that we’re talking about. Stormwater can’t be the only the public initiative that’s progressed; the only public issue that’s funded. Currently, with the plans that are being developed, that’s part of the problem. In LA County, $20.5 billion worth of stormwater projects. Stormwater can’t be the only thing we deal with. It’s the whole suite of issues that need to be addressed.”
So as we move forward, we need to figure out what we can actually afford to do in the scheme of things, Mr. Chi said. “What the state is pushing everyone towards is a model where we treat stormwater as more of a utility than we are today, and I think that’s part of where the political rub and the fight and the discussions and the dialog and the struggle will continue moving forward. There are municipalities throughout California that have implemented their own stormwater fees; LA County may have heard is working on a drought resiliency fee that has a huge stormwater component. I think that’s going to be one of those discussion points.”
“Resource allocation – nobody wants to pay more in taxes or fees,” he said. “What’s happening with stormwater is the regulatory structure has been created where we’re really going to have to think through what it is that we are going to have to pay, because I think the reality is that we’re going to have to do more than we’re doing today. It’s not likely going to be what the state wants currently, it’s not going to be $20.5 billion for LA County, but it’s going to be more than what we’re doing currently, and we need to figure out what that looks like together as we move forward.”
“A final thought,” Mr. Chi said. “Stormwater issues, the MS-4 permit – they are really complicated, but again, water is such an important resource and here for us in the San Gabriel Valley, we think stormwater is part of that overall water solution.”