The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to begin taxing homeowners and other property owners for improvements to city storm drains, which some officials say may rival the price tag for the $3.4-billion reconstruction of the city's sewer system.
The so-called abatement charge, approved 12-0, would cost the average homeowner $2 this year, but the average fee is projected to reach $28 in coming years. The charge, expected to be signed into law Friday by Mayor Tom Bradley, will appear on county property tax bills in September.
"This is the first step of the proverbial thousand-mile journey," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who heads the council's Budget and Finance Committee. "Unfortunately, the steps here will be measured in dollars--a lot of dollars."
The city is required under a discharge permit issued in June by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce water pollution flowing from the city's 1,100 miles of storm drains. Litter, oil, grease, toxic heavy-metal residues and other pollutants are currently flushed untreated through the network into Santa Monica Bay and the Los Angeles River, which empties into the harbor at Long Beach.
With the massive sewer reconstruction project at the Hyperion treatment plant near El Segundo scheduled to be completed in 1998, environmentalists believe storm drain runoff now poses the most serious threat to Santa Monica Bay.
In July, for example, the city of Santa Monica prohibited swimming on a popular stretch of beach near the Pico-Kenter storm drain after a water study found viruses from human fecal contamination.
"It makes sense for us to start finally putting some money into making sure the water is as safe as possible and the beaches as clean as possible," said Mark Gold, staff scientist for Heal the Bay, an environmental watchdog group.
During its first year, the new storm drain tax is expected to raise about $4.2 million, although the city Bureau of Engineering estimates annual assessments will increase in coming years to meet projected budgets of $40 million.
Yaroslavsky and others said costs could skyrocket if the city is forced to build treatment facilities for the runoff.
"This will be an initial charge system that will change as we get more information," said Phil Richardson of the city's Stormwater Management Division.
City officials said the charges are based on a formula that calculates the amount of runoff generated by different types of properties. Owners of single-family homes, for example, will pay less than owners of parking lots because some runoff from homes is absorbed by gardens and lawns.
In the future, Richardson said, the city will adjust charges to reflect types and quantity of pollutants generated by properties. It is estimated that commercial and industrial properties will pay three-quarters of the program's cost.
In the coming year, the biggest chunk of the $4.2 million will be spent to hire staff to devise a storm-water cleanup program, including extensive public education. Some officials believe a successful educational program could save millions of dollars by reducing pollution at the source.
"People don't realize that our storm drain system is separate from the sewer system; that what you put in the gutter ends up in the bay, not at Hyperion," said Public Works Commissioner Felicia Marcus. "As soon as people understand that, they respond well. . . . No one wants to pollute the bay."
The city will also begin work this year on pilot programs at the Thornton Avenue storm drain in Venice and a treatment plant at Ballona Creek near Marina del Rey.
Officials will monitor runoff at Thornton Avenue to test proposals to improve the quality of storm drain runoff. Street-cleaning crews, for example, will use vacuum cleaners instead of traditional sweepers to determine if the change reduces pollutants.
The city wants to develop an inflatable rubber dam at the mouth of Ballona Creek to serve as a plug for storm runoff. Water collected by the dam would be pumped to a treatment facility. CHARGES FOR STORM DRAIN IMPROVEMENTS \o7 The annual "storm water pollution abatement charge" for various land uses and lot sizes, as approved the Los Angeles City Council: \f7 Residential
LAND USE LOT SIZE (SQ. FT.) CHARGE Single-family 6,650 $2.00 10,000 $3.01 20,000 $4.35 40,000 $4.62 Apartments* 10,000 $6.16 20,000 $12.33 40,000 $24.66
LAND USE LOT SIZE (SQ. FT.) CHARGE Department Stores 40,000 $28.40 Supermarkets 40,000 $28.15 Office Buildings 40,000 $26.20
LAND USE LOT SIZE (SQ. FT.) CHARGE Light/Heavy Manufacturing 40,000 $26.20 Parking Lots 40,000 $26.20
* Charge for apartments is per building, not per unit.