Los Angeles County (L.A. County) is the most populous county in California, and thus the one with the largest water demand and some of the biggest water supply and quality challenges. Los Angeles County Public Works (LACPW) decided to address these challenges through its Safe, Clean Water Program (SCWP), which aims to optimize local storm water for water supply and to improve the quality of L.A. County’s surface water. To pay for this ambitious program, LACPW needed to gain the support of two-thirds of the electorate for a ballot initiative, Measure W, that would allow it to collect a property tax. In this interview, LACPW Director Mark Pestrella tells us about this process and its results. 

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Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Mark Pestrella: I’m a civil engineer by training and am licensed with the State of California. I studied civil engineering in college and started my career with LACPW in 1987. I’ve been there for 35 years now, and for the majority of that, I’ve been working in our water resource management core service area. It is the third-largest municipal water agency of the 200 that exist in L.A. County. I have also made my way through multiple jobs on both the regulatory and land use sides. Most of my technical work was done on the water side of the house, but now I’m now just a manager. I spent time teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, and eventually became the director of LACPW. 

LACPW is a corporate structure of six civil engineering business lines: water resources; environmental services; transportation; construction management; development services, including building and safety review and large-track development review for the county; and emergency management. We handle some 70,000 calls a year for all things related to infrastructure, including water and waste emergencies. LACPW is the largest public works agency in the United States. 

Municipal Water Leader: Tell us about LACPW’s service area, customer base, and infrastructure. 

Mark Pestrella: Our service area comprises 4,000 square miles of L.A. County. The business lines have both regional and local service areas, the latter being the unincorporated communities where the county provides all municipal services. There are 88 cities in L.A. County, and our department serves all of them in some fashion. There are also rural and high desert areas in the northern part of L.A. County that have tiny populations compared to the urban areas. Each business line has its own customer base. 

In the water area, we provide flood control services to 10 million people. We maintain and operate a large flood control water conservation system in L.A. County. We also serve retail water to about 300,000 people within six water districts that are dispersed throughout the county. The largest one is in a rural area in the north and has around 225,000 connections. It’s a conglomeration of a number of small water districts. Our smallest water district, which is in the urbanized southeastern Los Angeles area, has 1,600 customers. 

Municipal Water Leader: What was the motivation behind Measure W and the SCWP? 

Mark Pestrella: The story of water in the West is fairly well documented: In everything from Chinatown to Cadillac Desert, there are stories about dam building and the water wars between Northern and Southern California. There’s enough water for everybody in California, but most of the water is in and falls within Northern California. L.A. County happens to be the most populous county in California; therefore, we have the highest water demand. One of the major drivers for Measure W was to improve our local water supply. One of the other drivers was California’s changing weather patterns, which are making our local water supplies less reliable. There’s been a lot of pressure to find new water and to conserve and recycle water to improve the resiliency of the region’s water supply. 

The surface water system in L.A. County, which we operate under the flood control water conservation system, has done a really good job of capturing storm water. We are looking to optimize that system to improve the region’s water resiliency. While we’re already catching and conserving about one-third of the drinking water supply for L.A. County, we want to do more. Because of the hydrology and the topography of the area and the flashy nature of storms in L.A. County, it’s difficult to capture and hold the storm water, even though we have 14 major reservoirs, associated dams, and large-scale spreading facilities to capture water and replenish groundwater. Two-thirds of the water from major rain events makes its way through the system and out to the Pacific Ocean. We want to double the amount of rainwater we capture. The other resources we’re looking at include recycled water and reclaimed water— essentially, we want to move highly treated sanitary sewer water into the system and put it in the ground. 

Measure W was about optimizing local storm water for water supply and improving the quality of the surface water in L.A. County, given the importance of that surface water for human health and for the supply system. Those two altruistic, high-level drivers are what motivated our elected officials to take a shot at improving how we capture, conserve, and use storm water in L.A. County. 

Another driver was the Clean Water Act (CWA). L.A. County has been the subject of much regulation. It has its own municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit that regulates the quality of all the surface waters in the county as well as, to some extent, that of our drinking water supply. Surface waters in L.A. County are heavily polluted by legacy pollutants—every single open water body in L.A. County has some legacy pollutant in it and is considered impaired. 

Municipal Water Leader: What does the SCWP entail? 

Mark Pestrella: The SCWP is a capital improvement program that is going to be managed by LACPW. It is a watershed-based program that covers 85 of the 88 cities in L.A. County and aims to improve the county’s water supply and the quality of water in the county. Its revenue source is a property tax on residents; the measure will collect nearly $300 million a year. The program will be governed by a representative group of stakeholders from six major watersheds in L.A. County that will get together on an annual basis to approve projects for the region. Our elected officials on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the water agencies affected by the program will make appointments to the governing body. This representative, watershed-based governance model allows for the inclusion of environmental interests and disadvantaged community interests. 

One distinctive feature of this program is that the money stays in the watershed it was collected in. The regional programs will be managed by LACPW. We will eventually end up maintaining and operating the facilities that are defined by that regional governance. 

There’s also a provision in the act that provides money directly to the cities that are charged with complying with the CWA through their own MS4 permits. Those cities are required to develop their own capital improvement plans. They’re subject to an audit by LACPW and the county to make sure the funds are being spent to provide clean water and improved water supply to the community. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the process of building support for the ballot measure. 

Mark Pestrella: After initially considering raising money via a benefit assessment method, under which customers would pay based on the value of the services provided to their property, we started moving toward the idea of a property tax. However, flood control agencies do not have the authority to charge a property tax, and in California, a property tax requires approval by two-thirds of the electorate. To pass a property tax, we needed to obtain authority from the state legislature. We used our special district authority, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD), which covers the majority of L.A. County, to obtain the authority to pass a property tax. We then attempted three times over a period of 13 years to pass a tax, finally succeeding in 2018. 

It took 13 years and two droughts, one of which was really big, to develop an awareness of the importance of water and to create a water ethic in L.A. County. We spent a lot of time working with the community, the government, local jurisdictions, and local water agencies to put together a 3‑year, $8–9 million messaging and education campaign about the importance of water for health and daily life. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us more about how the program activities are divided between LACPW and the cities? 

Mark Pestrella: LACPW negotiated with the cities about supporting the program and created a program component through which 40 percent of the revenue is provided by the local agencies, meaning that 40 percent of the money coming out of a city is returned directly to it. The county collects the money, which gives the elected officials in the cities a lot of coverage, and the money is then reintroduced to the cities. There’s a lot of flexibility about where they can spend it, but they’re supposed to spend it on compliance with the CWA and the values of the SCWP. 

The lower Los Angeles River in Long Beach, with the Dominguez Gap Wetlands Project, one of L.A. County’s first demonstration projects for a regional integrated storm water facility, to the left. Low-flow runoff from the river is siphoned into the engineered wetlands, treated with natural filtration, and then reintroduced to the river.

Another 50 percent of the overall revenue that is collected goes to the regional watershed committees I described and is administered by the LACFCD. We call that the regional component of the program. This money will go to large-scale, regional projects. 

The remaining 10 percent goes to the LACFCD to pay for SCWP administration, educational programs, and science. 

The 40/50/10 split was negotiated by all the entities that were going to benefit from this program: the 85 cities within the county; the LACFCD; the 9 watershed-area steering committees; the 17 voting members, with at least one watershed coordinator in each; municipal representation; and agency representation. They passed the capital improvement program to the board of supervisors, which must approve it every 5 years. 

Municipal Water Leader: How will the SCWP reduce Los Angeles’s dependence on imported water supplies? 

Mark Pestrella: The demand for water in L.A. County is somewhere around 1.6 million acre-feet, or 521 billion gallons, of water per year. Per capita water use has been shrinking over the years, and we’ve kept it stable for almost 20 years through conservation and the optimization of our local storm water. As I mentioned before, we capture about one-third of the water that falls on the larger watershed, which equals about 250,000–300,000 of the 1.6 million acre-feet we need per year, and we want to capture another one-third. It will probably take 30–50 years to achieve that. 

In the first year of the program, nearly $100 million was approved for multibenefit projects across the region. There are 41 infrastructure projects and studies aimed at improving the amount of water we capture and put back in the ground. In L.A. County, we store most of our water in underground aquifers and basins. The rainwater we capture becomes groundwater. We replenish the groundwater basins, and the retailers have rights to pump that water. We are projecting spending about $380 million a year over 5 years. We have annual goals, such as using storm water to supply 33,000 more families each year. 

One of the mechanisms available to an arid region is to use nature to clean the water. We’ve done a lot of experimentation and found that water can be cleaned by sending it through alluvium and clean soils. In fact, our CWA compliance is tied to how much water we capture and send into the ground, not necessarily how clean the water is on the surface. We’ve been able to fold a lot of regulatory compliance and sustainability efforts into this regional, watershed-based effort. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the effects the program has had so far, and what are your future goals for it? 

Mark Pestrella: In Los Angeles, as in many places, the goal of the infrastructure that has been built through the years has changed. At the turn of the 20th century, it was about making the economy run. There was little to no thinking about effects on the environment or natural resources like water. This program seeks to change that and correct the disparity in investments. We believe that the economy will thrive when we build out our infrastructure with those values in place. 

Our goal is to build the program to full scale and, in 50 years, to be fully self reliant for our water supply so that we do not to have to import water other than for emergency purposes. For our surface water, we share the goal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and of our local and state water boards that all our waters be drinkable, swimmable, and fishable. It’s a high, aspirational goal. We envision someone swimming up the Los Angeles River someday. 

Mark Pestrella is the director of Los Angeles County Public Works. He can be contacted at mpestrella@pw.lacounty.gov.