A sober look at the environment in 2014

jc-mg-200-names.jpgAfter an idyllic holiday week of beautiful beach weather at the end of December and the usual overdose of football, nachos, and New Year's festivities, it's easy to slide into 2014 with a sense of optimism. However, 2013's record lack of rainfall was a reminder that an endless summer comes with a price. We'd like to think that 2014 could be a great year for the environment. But after getting back to work, here's a more sober look at what we'd like to see--and what we predict will actually happen.

#1 We'd like to see: Mayor Eric Garcetti follow through on his promise to produce LA's first sustainable city plan. We predict: This is an easy one. So let's accentuate the positive. This really will happen.

#2 We'd like to see: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve Alternative 20 for LA River restoration leading to major Congressional funding of that effort. Although Alternative 20 is still a long way from full-scale river restoration, it is the best of the proposed alternatives and could catalyze a more comprehensive watershed based restoration effort that would provide greater water quality, supply, and habitat benefits. We predict: Even if the Army Corps does the right thing, does anyone really think that this Congress will fund such a large restoration effort--even with the great urban economic renewal benefits provided by the project? Army Corps approval would be a great start, but restoring the LA River has been and will continue to be a long, long process.

#3 We'd like to see: An environmental impact report for the Ballona Wetlands restoration plan with a preferred alternative that is universally embraced by the public this year. We predict: There is as much chance of consensus here as there is of Congress fully funding Alternative 20 for the LA River. Unfortunately, there is too much contentious history around Ballona. But we must do a lot better than maintaining the status quo of degraded and poorly integrated habitats.

#4 We'd like to see: The state of California finally pass a law banning the use of most single use plastic bags at retailers. We predict: After nearly a decade of fighting over this issue in Sacramento, this will finally be the year. With a majority of people living in LA County -- as well as San Jose, San Francisco, and other places -- learning that living with a bag ban is no big deal, there is finally enough critical mass of public support and acceptance for the legislature to move forward.

#5 We'd like to see: Last summer's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stormwater ruling in favor of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the LA Waterkeeper withstand Los Angeles County's second appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and remove all doubt that the county must ensure that stormwater discharges will not cause or contribute to exceedances of water quality standards in the LA River. As a result, the county should move forward with urgency to pass a countywide stormwater fee this year to dramatically reduce polluted runoff. We predict: The Ninth Circuit Court ruling will stand and it will be positive for water quality in the region and beyond. But the question is, will the ruling be enough to move the county forward on a stormwater fee and get it approved by the public? Without so-called Proposition 218 reform (see below), that will prove very difficult. And with two of the five county supervisors strongly opposing the move, a lot would have to change to pass a fee to fund efforts to reduce the largest source of pollution to our local beaches, lakes, rivers and bays. But even without a fee, the county will need to dramatically improve its stormwater pollution abatement efforts to comply with the law. Look for progress on a stormwater fee, but it may be delayed to 2015 or later, and some cities may opt to go solo on their own fees.

#6 We'd like to see: The Hermosa Beach "slant drilling" project to tap oil under Santa Monica Bay from onshore rigs strongly rejected by the local community. We predict: Stopping the project will come at a considerable financial cost to Hermosa Beach, but after more than two decades of litigation and public debate, this finally will happen because strong local opposition has taken root throughout Hermosa Beach, supported by groups such as Surfrider and Heal the Bay.

#7 We'd like to see: The Brown administration lead an effort to close the gaps in SB 4, the fracking regulation bill passed last year. New regulations would protect water quality and public health, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and provide local communities with strong legal assurances that their rights will be protected. Stricter statewide regulation of fracking by the State Water Resources Control Board could take place under the authority of the Porter Cologne Act, including a permitting program that spells out detailed monitoring, effluent limits, and spill reporting requirements. We predict: Despite the passage of SB 4 requiring fracking fluid chemical disclosure and groundwater monitoring, the public continues to have major concerns about potential environmental (water use, emissions, subsidence) and public health risks (groundwater contamination, emissions) from fracking. We expect in the absence of stronger state regulation, fracking bans will spread across Los Angeles County, as cities, such as Culver City, LA, and others pass zoning changes prohibiting fracking within city limits.

#8 We'd like to see: A green streets bond measure approved by voters in November. At the end of the year, Climate Resolve--an organization dedicated to creating solutions to meet climate change challenges while making Los Angeles a more livable place--predicted that overwhelming passage of the bond, coupled with Mayor Garcetti's "great streets" initiative and Green LA's "living streets" initiative "will create a mega kumbaya moment to ultimately transform the city." We predict: The streets bond measure probably will be on the November ballot, and it may be the only environmental measure on the ballot since the state water bond and a countywide stormwater pollution abatement funding measure probably will not. The real question is: How big will the streets bond be and will all of the funding go towards filling potholes and fixing an enormous backlog of streets in major disrepair? Or will a substantial amount go towards green streets that enable stormwater to be absorbed into the groundwater, improved bicycle and pedestrian mobility, and more cooling benefits than the typical asphalt monoculture? This is definitely a 20th versus 21st century infrastructure decision for the City Council, which will write the measure, and the mayor. With a well-structured bond, there is a real opportunity here to transform LA's transportation paradigm one major street improvement at a time. The measure will still need to be approved at the ballot box by a 66 percent supermajority of voters. And that is going to be tough. But it is possible if voters grasp the opportunity here.

#9 We'd like to see: The city of LA approve a substantial, long-term, water rate increase that will finally move the Department of Water and Power forward on water recycling, stormwater capture, and groundwater cleanup efforts. We predict: Despite the fact that leadership in the mayor's office, city council, and city departments strongly support an integrated approach to water management, increasing water rates has proven to be a nearly Herculean task. Look for a much smaller rate increase than is needed to transform the city's broken approach to our current water supply, 89 percent of which is imported from more than 200 miles away. We can do a lot better than that and we have to. But due to the current public distrust of the LADWP, the key may be for the mayor, city council, business leaders, and environmental advocates to spearhead an effort to establish a five-to-ten year rate increase to transform LA to a sustainable water management infrastructure. The Department of Public Works overcame similar public distrust in the mid-to-late 1980s. Two years ago, in a dramatic demonstration of how the department has been transformed and earned the public's trust, a 10-year sewer fee increase was unanimously supported by the city council. Establishing trust in the LADWP is likely to take longer than one year, but that transformation needs to start this year. We're skeptical, but we'll be watching hopefully.

#10 We'd like to see: California reform state water management comprehensively by: 1) voters passing a constitutional amendment to modify Proposition 218 to exempt stormwater and flood control fee increases from the current requirement of a supermajority vote for passage; 2) the state centralizing all drinking water quality regulation under the State Water Resources Control Board; 3) the legislature passing legislation that enables wastewater treatment agencies to sell water that meets or exceeds Title 22 public health requirements (currently water supply agencies only have the right to sell recycled water); 4) the Brown administration and the legislature making groundwater management a reality in California, ending the days of land subsidence, and reversing the course of aquifer degradation caused by nitrates, solvents, and other contaminants; and 5) the state putting the California Water Action Plan into action--the five-year plan recently developed by the state Resources Agency, Cal-EPA, and the Department of Food and Agriculture includes numerous common sense recommendations to improve the state's surface and groundwater management and protect aquatic resources. We predict: If nothing else, happens Proposition 218 reform would be a giant step forward, but unless Governor Jerry Brown and the legislature make water in 2014 the state's number one priority, look for small incremental progress at best, although with record dry years mounting, incrementalism is not enough.

There is no question that 2014 could mark a real turning point for sustainability in Los Angeles. Will it happen? Check back here in early 2015 to see whether what we'd like to see or what we predict actually comes true.

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