Airport authority misses connection to clean water

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: For the last decade, I've sat on the Proposition O citizens oversight and advisory committee. Currently, I'm vice-chair. At $500 million, Prop O was the largest municipal stormwater pollution abatement bond in our nation's history, and it passed with over 76 percent of the vote. There have been more than two dozen Prop O stormwater projects approved by the city council. And the vast majority of them have been constructed. A couple of exceptions are the Machado Lake restoration project in Wilmington and the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) project in Westchester. LAWA is the airport oversight and operations department for the city. It owns and operates LAX, as well as the Ontario and Van Nuys airports.

The Machado Lake project is now moving forward. Unfortunately, the LAWA project isn't. And unless something drastically changes, it may never get built.

karthik b.jpgThe LAWA project is designed to take runoff from a 2,400-acre watershed and infiltrate it into groundwater, in order to help the city of Los Angeles comply with beach bacteria limits for Santa Monica Bay. Currently, the runoff from this area flows to Dockweiler State Beach. And the city is struggling to comply with water quality requirements along Santa Monica Bay beaches, especially during the winter months. The proposed $27 million LAWA project is designed to divert water from three storm drains into devices to remove trash and sediment. The water would then flow into a large underground rainwater storage tank. From there it would be pumped to underground infiltration facilities northwest of the airport. The facilities would not be located anywhere near airport runways. They would have relatively low operations and maintenance requirements. And the groundwater infiltration would occur near sandy, porous soils-- a perfect location for percolation.

This is one of the most important Prop O projects for Santa Monica Bay and LA's compliance with the Clean Water Act. So why hasn't it moved forward in the last four years?

One of the big lessons I've learned as a Prop O task force member is that partnering with city agencies can be difficult, especially if there isn't a clear benefit for the agency. The Parks and Recreation Department has been a willing partner because numerous Prop O projects have resulted in park upgrades that the department couldn't afford otherwise. Peck Park, Echo Park, and Rosecrans Park are great examples. And new parks have been created such as the South LA Wetlands. The Port of LA has been a tougher partner on Cabrillo Beach cleanup projects, but the Public Works Department and the port were able to find common ground and move forward on beach and water quality upgrades. The Department of Water and Power has been a strong partner on a number of projects, some that provided water supply, but others such as the park under the power lines off La Cienega that did not provide much.

L.A. World Airports has not been a successful partner. They've met with the Public Works Department, city council members' offices, and representatives from the mayor's office. But the public has been told that the project can't move forward for a variety of reasons. First the FAA was blamed, though it turned out the agency wasn't really a major obstacle. Then it was potential impacts on LAWA facilities. That issue was resolved as well.

Now the issue is that LAWA wants to get paid to use its land--in perpetuity. LAWA is a city department. But they expect the Department of Public Works--another city agency--to lease their subterranean land. The fact that Public Works would design, build, and manage the facility isn't enough. Neither is the standing offer to divert some airport runoff to the facility for cleanup. Since further stormwater treatment isn't technically required under LAWA's current industrial stormwater permit, LAWA has no legal incentive to do more.

However, doing more would show that LAWA is a strong city environmental partner. It would help clean up Santa Monica Bay and reduce the city's Clean Water Act liabilities. Those are pretty compelling reasons for LAWA to partner on the critical Prop O project.

But time is running out. Because of LAWA 's refusal to help make this airport stormwater project happen, the Bureau of Sanitation is now developing a suite of other potential projects to make up for the loss of the LAWA project and reduce pollution in Santa Monica Bay. Moving forward with these new projects will take more time, result in additional costs (spending money on designing and managing new projects on top of the costs already incurred designing and managing the LAWA project), and ultimately result in a less effective approach to cleaning up Santa Monica Bay.

It's time for Los Angeles World Airports to step up and do what it can to help LA move this project forward.

Photo by Flickr user Karthik B.

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