LA County wants a new tax on property owners to fund the capture of more stormwater

Concrete stormwater storage caverns being set into place in Sun Valley Park several years ago. They have since been covered over with about five feet of fill dirt. Baseball and soccer fields are placed atop the caverns.
Concrete stormwater storage caverns being set into place in Sun Valley Park several years ago. They have since been covered over with about five feet of fill dirt. Baseball and soccer fields are placed atop the caverns.
Los Angeles County Flood Control District

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Los Angeles County captures only about one-fifth of its rainfall to store underground for later use. The rest is lost to the ocean. County officials want to raise more than $300 million dollars a year to collect more of that stormwater. And they hope to get that money from property owners in the form of a new tax. 

The county board of supervisors called on its Public Works Department a year ago to come up with a means of funding extensive new stormwater capture projects. The efforts may be small, like collecting water from street medians or installing permeable pavement on a public parking lot. They could also be large construction projects, like building a network of water storage catacombs under local parks.

The county has long collected a tax on property to fund its Flood Control District, but it has no dedicated source of funding for stormwater capture, said Public Works Director Mark Pestrella. A draft of the proposal calls for charging landowners 2.5 to 3.5 cents per square foot of property that is impermeable and can't absorb rainfall or storm runoff.

The proposal is expected to go before the board of supervisors June 26 for a vote that could place it on the county's November ballot. It would take a two-thirds vote to pass.

Los Angeles County already has a property tax, how would this be different?

The main county property tax is levied on the assessed value of a parcel, and the terms of Proposition 13 limit how much it can go up each year. But your L.A. County property tax bill is the place where you pay several other taxes that voters have approved over the years. This stormwater capture tax, which Pestrella calls the Clean Safe Water Program, would be one more such tax.

It would be calculated on the amount of square footage in the parcel that rain does not soak into. So driveways, paved patio and roofs would be taxed at the amount the supervisors decide on. The county would calculate the impermeable square footage of a parcel using an advanced form of radar called Lidar.

Property owners could reduce the tax they pay by converting impermeable surfaces to permeable ones. Tearing out an asphalt driveway and replacing it with grass or some surface that allows water to soak into the ground.

The measure may also incorporate a system of incentives or rebates to reward landowners who do more to keep rainwater from moving off their property, Pestrella said.

How much would the tax raise and for how long?

That depends on the rate the supervisors decide to request in the tax ballot measure, but the plan is to raise somewhere between $300 and $400 million for the county's Flood Control District via the parcel tax.

The tax, as written, would be permanent, but the supervisors could choose to insert an end date, say, in 30 or so years.

What might be the economic impact of such a tax?

Our current groundwater supply makes up about one-third of the water used in the county. An aggressive program of building stormwater capture projects could reduce the region’s dependence on costly imported water.

Proponents of the tax say the money could enable the region to survive droughts better, reduce pollution from storm runoff and create thousands of new jobs.

Jobs are one reason the advocacy group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy endorses the measure. Executive Director Roxana Tynan says projects to capture groundwater could replace large paved areas with new public green space.

"That is something that our communities in Northeast L.A., and East and South Los Angeles are in desperate need of," Tynan said.

However, businesses that have large building footprints and paved parking lots may end up paying more of the tax. 

Los Angeles County doesn’t have vast tracts of land to develop for rainwater capture, but it does have many hard, impermeable surfaces that could be altered to direct water underground. Those places include parking lots, school yards, parks and street medians.

The money raised through a parcel tax to capture stormwater could provide other benefits. Some of the projects double as parks, scenic wetlands and wildlife habitats. They can also make schools greener as percolation fields replace asphalt.

Capturing rainfall close to where it lands can also reduce the amount of pollution in local waterways and the ocean.

Some parts of the county are already investing in stormwater capture, including in the cities of Santa Monica and Santa Clarita. So an element of the plan that would provide incentives or rebates to those areas is also under consideration by the tax drafting team.

Cities would get 40 percent of the tax collected within their boundaries to spend on projects that meet the goals of the tax.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.