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First, Detail the Sewer Costs

August 18, 2004

With ocean pollution prompting 60% more beach closures and health warnings in Los Angeles County last year, it's time to get serious about urban runoff -- the mixture of bacteria, trash and toxic material that flows into local waterways and through storm drains to the ocean. Contributing to it is almost every human activity you can name, including driving cars (oil on the roads washes into storm drains during rains), watering the lawn (fertilizers and pesticides flow into drains) and walking the dog without picking up what Fido leaves behind.

Before Los Angeles voters agree to cough up $500 million for a cleaner ocean and cleaner rivers, though, they should demand a couple of things. Like more action from surrounding cities and an itemized list of how their money would be spent.

The L.A. City Council had its heart in the right place when it voted last month to put a $500-million bond measure on the November ballot, Measure O, to clean up urban runoff. That's a big improvement over its years-long court battles to avoid clean-water mandates. But L.A. voters are being asked to pick up a tab that should be spread much wider and to clean up pollution that could be prevented.

Cleanup of Santa Monica Bay is one expensive item on the funding list. Yet just up the coast is Malibu, which clings to its polluting septic systems and where many wealthy residents set up illegal pipelines to drain their dirty water directly into the ocean.

Why should L.A. residents pay dearly to get bacteria out of the bay when their wealthy neighbors keep pouring it in?

Orange County -- though it's much earlier in the planning stages -- has been crafting a more focused approach, with a user fee that would require only a simple majority of property owners to pass. Its preliminary $25-million proposal is regional rather than local and would go after the biggest fix first by rerouting the area's worst-polluting storm drains into the sewer system for cleansing. Part of the money might be used for public education and enforcement -- important prevention efforts.

Los Angeles' runoff problems admittedly are more complicated. But at least L.A. voters should know what they'll get in the way of cleaner water for their half-billion. Officials have backed off from drawing up a project list because of public jockeying for neighborhood enhancements, such as local parks that would soak up runoff and filter it naturally into the ground. In addition, the technology for catching runoff changes fast, and new federal mandates are expected. So the bond measure would create an independent advisory group, made up mostly of clean-water experts, to consider projects.

That won't banish political pressure or protect taxpayers against costly boondoggles.

Yes, the measure should have built-in flexibility to meet changing needs, but voters need a better idea of where their money is going. Right now, they're being asked to make an expensive decision in the dark.

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