OC WATER SUMMIT: Southern California stormwater update

Flood control measures that were put in place decades ago have changed the landscape of the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers while also allowed for precious stormwater to be lost to the ocean. Some communities in Southern California have been working collaboratively with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase stormwater capture and revitalize local rivers.  At the OC Water Summit, held in June of this year, Colonel Kirk E. Gibbs, Commander of the Los Angeles District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave this update on the efforts to capture more stormwater in Southern California.

The Los Angeles District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of 43 districts within the Corps; it encompasses not only Southern California, but also the entire state of Arizona, Southern Nevada and a small part of Utah.

I call our district the drought district,” began Colonel Gibbs.  “Yesterday I was in a meeting at my headquarters, and a staff member told me that the drought was now over.  And I said, no it’s not.  Maybe from a perspective of Northern California, there are some people who are thinking that way, but not in Southern California.  And that is an issue that we’ve all got to be out there talking to federal government, federal leaders in Washington DC about.  They are so disconnected from Southern California and the state of Arizona, they don’t know the challenges we’re dealing with.”

The budget this year for the district is about $700 million; with only about $100-120 million or 15% of that being for for civil works.  “That is what we are known for; that’s what I focus on, and that’s where the most pressure comes from, primarily in the way it’s funded – by Congressionally authorized and appropriated projects,” he said.

The Army Corps mission and responsibilities include navigation, flood risk management, ecosystem restoration, water supply, regulatory (wetlands and US waters), recreation, and disaster preparedness and response.

I want to let you know that our challenges really work around the budget constraints that we have,” he said.  “We compete across the entire nation with 42 other districts.  Every year we get about 6 new start studies, which means they get appropriations to actually get the work started for feasibility studies; and then 6 new start construction projects that have been through the study process and are moving into actual construction.  Five of those six in both categories are flood risk management projects and navigation.  The other one of those six is ecosystem restoration.  What that does tell you about where water supply and water conservation type studies fall out.”

Colonel Gibbs assured that the Los Angeles District is helping Southern California with stormwater capture, but only with very committed sponsors.

In order to operate the Army Corps facilities in a manner to conserve stormwater, a ‘minor deviations’.  Colonel Gibbs explained that a control plan specifies how the dams are operated; when the water gets up to a certain level behind the dam, they have to release water; in order to change that, a deviation is needed.

We do a whole lot of work to get a one year deviation in place where we can change that water control plan for the wet season,” he said.  “We operate our gates differently to hold more water behind it, and we work closely with downstream sponsors, and in the case of Prado Dam, for example, the Orange County Water District, so that they can control where the water goes, divert it to spreading grounds and detention basins and allow it to soak into the water table.”

Colonel Gibbs said that after the storms in February, 52,000 acre-feet of water had been conserved, which is approximately equivalent to about $41.6 million of water that would have had to be imported, he said.  At Whitter Narrows, 42,000 acre-feet was conserved.

We are working on major deviation packets that would keep the deviations in place over the next 5 years,” he said.  “It takes an incredible amount of work, an incredible amount of coordination, and input and feedback and comments.  Probably some of them are 122 pages from resource agencies.  They are expensive.  Committed sponsors like OCWD is allowing us to move forward on that, and I’m very happy to say for OCWD, this five year deviation should be in place in November this year, at the latest December, so for the next five years, we don’t have to do that one-year deviation work every year.”

It also allows them to continue with the Prado Basin Environmental Restoration Feasibility Study, which is also sponsored by OCWD.  “By the time we can implement what comes out of that study, it’s a permanent solution to how we can conserve water behind the dam, release it in conjunction with the water district downstream, and conserve as much water as possible,” he said, noting that a similar process is underway at the Whittier Narrows facility.

The Prado Basin Feasibility Study has been underway since 2012; it’s a complex study with a lot of challenges.  It has also been a very close partnership with OCWD.  “They requested initiation of a multi-objective study that would look at ecosystem restoration, improved sediment management, and increased stormwater storage.  So when you look at what is authorized and appropriated from the Washington DC level, you can see how far down water supply and water conservation is.  So what is the best way to get that into a study?  You do what OCWD did and you request environmental restoration and combine with that water conservation, combine that with such sediment management.  Secondary benefit I know will be recreational opportunities.  Those types of multi-purpose projects are more likely to get federal funding support.”

Colonel Gibbs said he views this project as a model study; it’s multi-purpose and it has a committed sponsor.   “I think if we can get this study to the finish line, get increased water conservation in place, and capture as much stormwater as we can in Orange County, I think it will be groundbreaking for Southern California, Arizona, and really across the nation, and I think we can get some momentum for funding these types of projects, so I’m really excited about the prospects of that.”

There are two other water supply projects the Corps is working on; they are Section 219, environmental infrastructure projects:

Harbor South Bay Water Recycling Project: The Army Corps is working with them to build a water distribution system for recycled water.  It was federally funded with a 75/25 cost share; the federal contribution being about $35 million.  The project is with the West Basin Municipal Water District.  The money was received this year.

South Perris Water Supply Desalination:   A 3 MGD desalination plan with pipelines and wells. Federal funds have contributed $25 million total for this project.

The Army Corps has been working with OCWD, LA County DPW, the Water Replenishment District, and others; Colonel Gibbs said he talks with DC congressional members about the type of authorities needed to help out more on water supply.  As many of you know, a definite advocate and teammate of the Corps of Engineers is Representative Grace Napolitano, and her staff works closely with us on certain verbiage that we would need to expand our abilities,” he said.

The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, WIIN 2016, had some great things in it,” he said.  “With the support of some of you today, I think we can move forward on other opportunities for water conservation and water supply projects.  These authorities would become our tools to pursue varying levels of water conservation at our flood control dams.  Section 1116, specifies the vehicle for our partnership and cost sharing of the required study and implementation of the project.  This would be applicable to the other authorities that are listed up there as well.”

Section 1117 is a disaster type or emergency type situation where a state governor can request that we streamline changes to the water control plan and the water control manual.  That’s a very exciting prospect as we look at that.  Section 1118, when used with Section 1116, would allow us to investigate major modifications to our dams and related facilities beyond operational changes alone.  And then Section 1304 would allow changes for water conservation specifically in the Los Angeles drainage system, LA River and San Gabriel River.  Right now, our headquarters is developing the implementation guidance.”

Colonel Gibbs said he grew up on a farm, and he likes to get things done quickly, but receiving implementation guidance after something is authorized by Congress takes forever.  “So, the interest for immediate use of these authorities could expedite completion of their guidance.  I want to leave with you that.”

Currently, they are conducting the Whittier Narrows and the Prado Dam conservation studies, and have had initial discussions on Hansen Dam and Lopez Dam.  “We’ve got 12 dams;  2 out of 12 is about a 167 batting average, that’s lower than Albert Pujol’s batting average by a lot, but we want to increase that batting average.  As you may be aware, we need a local partner to conduct these vital water conservation studies and move forward and support Southern California in their efforts.  So please, come work with us, let us know you’re interested, and I appreciate your time …

Question:   There has been a lot of media on the pre-final plans for development of the LA River area, with architect Frank Gehry helping to design it and make it more natural.  There’s a school of thought that this may threaten the efficiency of the water runoff.  What are your feelings about that?  Would that be a danger to the flood control aspect of the LA and Santa Ana rivers?

The short answer through our decade of studying this and analyzing it is no,” he said.  “One of the requirements to move forward with environmentally restoring the LA River channel is that we would not impact the channel capacity, or it’s ability to manage flood risks at the levels that it was originally designed for.  Some portions were originally designed at 25 year events, some up to 70, so one of the requirements is that we do not impact that.  Frank Gehry, we’re so excited to be communicating with him.  My staff has met with his staff three times.  I’ve talked to him quite a bit.  One of the challenges he often comes out and says is how do you get after environmental restoration?  It’s in conflict with the flood management piece, and so that’s why they are talking to us and working very closely with us.  Frank’s team has looked at the entire 51 mile stretch.  We’ve looked primarily at an 11 mile stretch of the LA River project, so exciting to see how they have validated much of the analysis that we’ve done, and as we work with them, we will keep that in mind, that we don’t impact the flood risk management to the population along that river.”

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