I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

The Sky Above, the Traffic Below

a MTA UC 10 Persp

Lately most of the press on the MTA has been about its rail expansions, but there are other, smaller projects that deserve attention, too. Work was recently completed on both the North Hollywood Station Underpass and the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge. There have been some complaints from transit advocates about these projects, but I have to say I think both offer significant benefits.

The smaller and less flashy of the two is the underpass. The construction phase was a huge pain, but now that it’s finished I think it’s a big improvement over the previous set-up. Using the tunnel to transfer from the Red Line to the Orange Line is much faster, and much safer. I remember waiting for the light to change so I could cross Lankershim, and I’d see people dashing across the street, dodging oncoming traffic, just so they could catch an Orange Line bus. So it’s definitely a step up in terms of safety. I also like the bright, playful design of the underpass. It fits in well with vibe of the Red Line Station.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

A closer view of the entrance.

A closer view of the entrance.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

The first time I checked out the bridge at Universal City I had some reservations. While it’s an interesting structure, my initial reaction was that it was a little too severe. But while I was taking photos the other day, I was really impressed by the spaces it creates, and also how it exploits the views of the surrounding community. On one side you have the low roll of the Hollywood Hills, on the other side the Valley is stretching out to the horizon. Look up and you see massive high-rises cutting into the sky, look down and you see the traffic swirling on the street below.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

Transit planning is a large and complicated puzzle. I don’t claim to understand all the intricacies, and I know that some people feel the money spent on these projects could have been used for other purposes. But I see definite advantages in both the bridge and the underpass. I’m glad to have them.

a MTA UC 75 Brdg Silh

Keeping the River Clean

LAR 05 Riv Trees Fwy a

Yesterday I got up earlier than I usually do on a Saturday. It took some effort, but by nine o’ clock I’d made it to Marsh Park so I could take part in the annual LA River clean-up event organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR).

This stretch of the river is bordered by a mix of older stucco homes and industrial buildings. Marsh Park seems to wind its way through the neighborhood, I’m assuming because it was planned to take advantage of unused open space. It’s nicely landscaped, and has a cool play area for kids.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

There's a cool play area for kids.

There’s a cool play area for kids.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

The gate that leads to the river.

The gate that leads to the river.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

You'll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

You’ll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

An artist's effort to beautify a wall.

An artist’s effort to beautify a wall.

Dozens of people had made it there ahead of me. I got a pair of gloves and a trash bag, and after a brief orientation they set us loose on the river. The guy who gave us the ground rules said that twenty seven years ago, when FoLAR started doing these annual clean-ups, they came across all kinds of things in the river bed. In the early days they’d be hauling out mattresses, shopping carts, and even cars. These days, he went on to say, it was mostly a matter of picking up plastic bags.

A quick orientation before we got started.

A quick orientation before we got started.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Exploring the river bed.

Exploring the river bed.

Looking high and low for trash.

Looking high and low for trash.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

FoLAR has been taking care of this long-neglected natural treasure for thirty years. Unlike the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a latecomer with a pro-development agenda, FoLAR’s members have been trying for decades to realize the river’s tremendous potential as a public resource. Back when most of us were making jokes about this massive concrete channel that wound its way through the landscape, Lewis MacAdams and his cohorts saw what the river had once been and could be again. They’ve been working diligently since the eighties to protect and restore the LA River, and to educate the rest of us about its past and possible future.

Developers have realized that there's money to be made by building along the banks.

Developers have realized that there’s money to be made by building along the banks.

One of the river's current residents.

One of the river’s current residents.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

I spent a while collecting trash, and then I wandered off to take pictures. I’d never walked along the river bed before. It was pretty cool. I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I barely noticed the LA River. Encased in concete, bounded by industrial parks and rail lines, running beneath dozens of bridges, it’s as if the river has been buried by the city. We’re only starting to dig it out now. It will be many years before we uncover its real potential.

I’m so glad I made the effort to be there for the clean-up. It was a great day. And it’s just one of many events that FoLAR holds throughout the year. Check out their web site for more info.

FoLAR

LAR 90 Riv Path

Death by a Thousand Cuts

MTA 4

Not too long ago I was riding the bus and saw a pamphlet on display. The title was Public Hearing on Proposed Service Changes. Even before I picked it up, I more or less knew what it was about. The “service changes” are mostly service cuts, yet another round of reductions by the MTA.

This isn’t surprising. Last I checked, the MTA was running an operating deficit of over $30 million a year, and that deficit will continue to grow. One solution would be to raise fares, but the last time they did that there was a decline in ridership. Of course, ridership has been going down for a while now. Some argue that the decline may be reversable, and point to the rail extensions that are currently under construction. New rail stops will bring new riders, but they will also increase operating costs. And actually, fares don’t nearly cover what it takes to run the system. I really doubt that increased ridership from these extensions will make a serious difference in the budget picture.

There’s no simple solution here. While I’m not happy about further cutbacks, I know Metro is probably doing the best they can to balance their budget under challenging circumstances. But I’ve gotta say, it’s getting harder and harder to get around LA on public transit. A number of the lines I use regularly run only once an hour. The Rapid busses, which were great to start with, don’t run as often as they used to. I don’t read when I ride the bus, but I’ve started taking a book with me when I’m going somewhere because I never know how long I’ll be waiting to make a connection.

What I’m leading up to here, is that I’m really starting to question the MTA’s long term strategy. For years now we’ve been told that we need to invest in rail to solve our transit problems. Well, we’ve built a lot of rail, and things don’t seem to be getting any better. Looking at the budget issues and the trend in ridership, I don’t believe the rail we’re building now is going to make a huge difference. At some point we have to ask ourselves if this approach is working.

That brings us to Measure R2, the ballot initiative we’ll be voting on in November, which will increase the sales tax to raise billions for transit. About 40% of the projected revenue will go to rail projects, and looking at the results we’ve gotten from rail so far, I’m increasingly skeptical about whether this is the right way to go. Trains are great if you’re travelling in a straight line from point A to point B, but as soon as you get away from that straight line, things start getting complicated. Rail works great in New York, where the system is centered on a very dense urban core. LA is much more spread out, and even though Downtown is attracting more residents and businesses, it doesn’t function as the City’s center the way Manhattan does. There are those who argue we need to build high density hubs along transit lines, which sounds good, but City Hall has been pushing that policy for years and it’s not producing the promised results. Transit ridership is down. If our leaders had pursued a policy of building affordable housing that would make job centers easily accessible by rail, it might be a different story. But renting near rail stops is pretty pricey. A studio at Noho Commons goes for $1,777. Digs at the Jefferson in Hollywood start at $2,238. And I don’t know what they’ll be charging at the Wilshire Grand, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be more than the average transit rider can afford.

MTA 5 a

Measure R2 will deliver other things besides rail, and I don’t want to say I’m opposed to it, but at this point I can’t say I’ll vote yes. It seems like there are others who have doubts as well. This post on StreetsBlog breaks down the MTA’s 2016 budget, and raises some important issues. The comments are worth reading, too.

A Preview of Metro’s $5.6 Billion Fiscal Year 2016 Budget from StreetsBlog LA

I also came across this article in the Daily News that talks about how the Valley has gotten less than its share of transit infrastructure in the past, and how leaders on that side of town are worried about getting shortchanged again with R2. One of the points the author makes is that with big infrastructure projects, the longer they’re delayed, the more expensive they become.

What the Valley Would Get, and Not Get, in New Transportation Tax from Daily News

LA County is promoting R2 in order to fund a massive expansion of our rail network. Basically I’m asking if rail is really worth the money, time and trouble. Busses are much cheaper and much more flexible. Also, investing in busses won’t saddle the MTA with a huge debt load the way these infrastructure projects will. Debt service already accounts for a significant portion of the agency’s budget, and expanding the rail lines will make that burden even heavier.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about R2 in the coming months. City, County and State officials are already making an aggressive push to promote it. Again, I’m not saying I oppose it, but as you listen to our elected officials give their spiel, ask yourself if our public transit policy is taking us in the right direction. And if not, is it time to change course?

MTA 1

You Can’t Drink Paper Water

UWMP Paper Water b

Why should you care what the DWP’s 2015 Urban Water Management Plan says?

You should care because city officials will use the UWMP when making decisions about future development in LA. They will be relying on the plan’s absurdly optimistic projections regarding future water resources to justify approving projects that could burden our dwindling water supply with unsustainable demands.

But first, let’s put this discussion in the right context. People talk about how we’re in the fourth year of the drought, and the assumption is that even if things are really bad now, eventually the drought will end and we’ll be back to normal. This is a big mistake. Everybody has their fingers crossed, hoping that this year’s heavy precipitation in the Sierras will restore the snowpack and we’ll be okay again. Actually, the snowpacks have been declining for decades, and there’s no reason to believe that trend will reverse itself in the near future. If you’re skeptical about this claim, check out these links.

Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada Lowest in 500 Years from NY Times

Declining Snowpacks May Cut Many Nations’ Water from Columbia University

This isn’t just a matter of toughing it out through a few dry years. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to use a lot less water than we’re used to. And this is not just a matter of taking shorter showers or getting rid of your lawn. We have to change the way we think about water in LA.

But in spite of the fact that we’re playing a whole new game, the people who run this city are determined to cling to the same old rules. Los Angeles was built largely on real estate speculation. For decades developers kept pushing the City’s boundaries outward, and this was only possible because the people who ran LA kept extending the reach of our water infrastructure. Local groundwater only supplies about 10% to 15% of what we need. The rest comes from sources far beyond the city limits.

We’ve gotten so used to living beyond our means that we still haven’t come to terms with the reality of our shrinking water resources. And in spite of all the rhetoric from City Hall about conservation, when it comes to planning for growth, our elected officials are determined to deliver everything the developers ask for.

So what’s wrong with the 2015 UWMP? In broad terms it does a good job of outlining the challenges that the City faces. But when we get down to specifics, the authors manage to avoid spelling out the severity of the situation. And in talking about the future of our water resources, things get very vague.

You want some examples?

The plan does talk about the fact that we’ll be getting much less water from the LA Aqueduct than we have in the past. In order to mitigate severe environmental impacts to the Owens Valley and Mono Lake, the City has agreed to reduce the amount it imports from the area. In the 70s and 80s, the Aqueduct generally brought us over 400,000 acre feet per year (AFY). That number started to drop in the 90s, and while some years have been better than others, the average has continued to decline, especially in the last four years. In 2014/2015 we received only 53,500 AFY. Less than 14% of what we were getting thirty years ago. This is a record low.

Graph showing LA Aqueduct deliveries from the 2015 UWMP.

Graph showing LA Aqueduct deliveries from the 2015 UWMP.

There’s another figure I’d like to cite in connection with the LA Aqueduct, and that’s the amount of water it delivered to us from April through September 2015.

Zero.

Last year the LA Aqueduct was closed for the first time in its history. A temporary dam was put in place so that the City of LA could fulfill its obligations to maintain the Owens Valley and Mono Lake. During this period, we received no water from the aqueduct. I can’t claim to have read the entire UWMP, but in the reading I have done I didn’t come across any references to this closure. Maybe that’s because it’s such a stark symbolic reminder of the gravity of our situation.

So how are we going to replace the water we used to get from the Aqueduct? Of course, there’s the usual talk about recycling and stormwater capture, both of which are certainly worthwhile, but it will be years before they start making a serious difference with regard to our water supply. And then there’s this section from the Executive Summary under the heading Water Transfers.

LADWP plans on acquiring water through transfers of up to 40,000 AFY to replace a portion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (LAA) water used for environmental enhancements in the eastern Sierra Nevada. The City would purchase water when available and economically beneficial for storage or delivery to LADWP’s transmission and distribution system.

Wow. That’s great. It’s so simple. We’ll can just suck up another 40,000 AFY through water transfers from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD).  But the problem here is that they’re assuming MWD will reliably have access to that much water.  The UWMP mentions transfers of water originally intended for agriculture in the Central Valley.  What?  Have they seen the photos of landscapes collapsing due to overpumping?  In order to justify the claim that we can rely on these water transfers, the UWMP bases its calculations on the historic average of water supplies going back to the 20s.  They offer a chart titled “MWD Forecast Supplies of Groundwater Storage and Transfers in 2040, Average Year (1922 – 2004 Hydrology) “.  In other words, they’re basing their calculations on conditions that existed well before the current crisis began.  And they’re using those figures to project water supplies 25 years into the future.

But what about groundwater? Right now the supplies we get from aquifers within city limits provide between 10% and 15% of what we use annually. But in the Executive Summary under the heading Water Supply Reliability the DWP offers this startling prediction.

The exhibits show that the City’s locally-developed supplies will increase from 14 percent to 49 percent in dry years or to 47 percent in average years.

What a relief! Using purified wastewater and captured stormwater we’re going to more than triple our groundwater resources! But wait. It gets even better.

These local supplies are not influenced by variability in hydrology, and will become the cornerstone of LA’s future water supplies.

This is really amazing. Our local supplies are not influenced by variability in hydrology! In other words, the same factors that affect water resources everywhere all over the world will not affect the groundwater in LA. Though they don’t provide much in the way of explanation, it seems that the folks at the DWP have somehow cast a magic spell over the City. No matter how hot it gets or how little it rains, we can rest assured that our aquifers will soon be supplying us with almost half of the water we need.

I wonder if that same magic spell protects us from toxic chemicals. Because most of our groundwater comes from wells in the San Fernando Valley, and about half of those wells are closed right now because of industrial pollution. The DWP does have a plan to build two treatment plants that will purify the water from these sources, but it could be years before they break ground. At this point they don’t even have the funding lined up.

But rather than subjecting you to more of my ranting, let me turn this over to somebody who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do and who does a way better job of breaking it down. DroughtMath is a blog that digs deep into water issues, and you can find a detailed breakdown of the 2015 UWMP there. I recommend starting with this post, which clearly lays out how the DWP uses “paper water” to pretend that they’ll have no problem supplying the City with everything it needs. What is paper water? It’s water that “utilities claim they have access to, but is difficult or impossible to access for various reasons.” But go ahead and check out what DroughtMath has to say on the subject.

LADWP’s Paper Water Leverages on MWD Supplies from DroughtMath

He also gives a good overview of the UWMP and its many flaws in this post.

Thoughts on the 2015 Draft UWMP from DroughtMath

I want to wrap up by saying that in spite of the anger and sarcasm in my tone, I do not see the DWP as the bad guy here. While the agency has had its share of scandals, the men and women who work there mostly do an amazing job of making sure that we almost always get the water we need. When you think about the fact that the DWP serves an area of about 400 square miles, and that we have little in the way of local resources, it’s remarkable that they have built and maintained a system that reliably brings us water for bathing, washing, cooking, and cleaning with few disruptions.

The bad guys are the developers and politicians who refuse to recognize that there are very real limits to our water resources. The bad guys are those people who are so blinded by greed and ego that they don’t want the citizens of LA to know how seriously compromised those resources are. The UWMP may seem like just another boring technical report, but it has huge consequences for the City’s future growth.

I am not saying we should stop growth. I’m saying we need to have a realistic picture of how much growth we can support. We can only make decisions about future development if we have an accurate picture of our water resources. The draft 2015 UWMP does not provide that.

If you’re as concerned as I am, I urge you to make your voice heard. The first step is to take a look at the UWMP. I know, I know, it’s a lengthy, intricate technical document and probably nobody’s idea of a good read. But you don’t have to go through the whole thing. Just take a look at the Executive Summary, which provides an overview of the contents and conclusions.

2015 UWMP at LADWP

The first public hearing is already past, but there’s a second one on March 9 from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Sepulveda Garden Center, 16633 Magnolia Blvd., in Encino.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, you can still submit comments by e-mail. The deadline is March 16. Here’s the address.

uwmp@ladwp.com

If you’re concerned about development, or if you just care about the city you live in, please let the DWP know your feelings on this issue. If the DWP Board adopts the current version of the 2015 UWMP, it will be one more instance of our city officials placing the needs of developers with deep pockets over the needs of the people of Los Angeles.

We Don’t Have the Water

WP 01 Head

Clearly, the crowd down at City Hall is totally out of touch with reality. They’re completely caught up in the delusion that they’re creating a dazzling new urban landscape, when in fact they’re doing tremendous damage to the City. They say they’re planning for the future, but rational people know that planning for the future means starting with the cold, hard reality of the present.

Here’s the reality. We don’t have enough water to support the current massive surge in development. Not by a long shot.

Recently the Downtown News ran an article listing more than 90 projects planned for Downtown LA. You read that right. Nine zero. But that’s only the beginning, because there are large projects planned for the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Hollywood, West LA and Warner Center. These projects will bring thousands of new residential units, along with office space, retail and restaurants, and they will boost water consumption in LA by many thousands of acre feet per year. Yeah, I know they’ll have drought-tolerant landscaping and low flush toilets. Let me repeat. These projects will boost water consumption in LA by many thousands of acre feet per year.

Los Angeles, like the rest of the southwest, is facing a severe, long-term water shortage. The TV news tells us that the drought started four years ago, and everybody’s hoping it will end with El Niño. But the conditions that created this shortage have existed for decades. This isn’t just a matter of waiting out a few dry years until things get back to normal. This is the new normal.

Lawns are turning brown all over LA as people try to decide  whether to replace them or just let them die.

Lawns are turning brown all over LA as people try to decide whether to replace them or just let them die.

Let’s start with some basic facts. LA gets its water from four sources, the LA Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct/State Water Project, the Colorado River, and local groundwater. Here’s a breakdown of how each of these resources has been compromised in recent years.

LA Aqueduct
The LA Aqueduct was dammed from April through October of this year. This was done because the DWP has been ordered by the courts to mitigate environmental impacts in the Owens Valley. That means that for roughly six months out of the year, LA received no water from the LA Aqueduct. This is the first time in the one hundred year history of the Aqueduct that it’s been dammed, but there’s a good chance it will happen again as snow packs in the Eastern Sierras continue to decline.

California Aqueduct/State Water Project
The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which serves LA, received only 20% of its allocation from the State Water Project (SWP) in 2015. The SWP depends on the Sierra Nevada snowpack for most of its water. On April 1, 2015, the statewide snowpack held only 5% of its average water content. Currently there’s no reason to believe that the decline of California’s snowpacks will be reversed in the near future, which means it’s likely that the MWD will receive only a fraction of its allotment for years to come.

Colorado River
This year the Colorado River was the one bright spot in the water picture, and local agencies received 100% of their allocations. But don’t expect that to continue. The amount of water flowing through the Colorado River has been declining for years. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are hitting record lows. It’s almost certain that allocations from the Colorado River will be slashed in the years to come.

Groundwater
For decades contamination from industrial waste has been encroaching on the wells in the San Fernando Valley. Right now about half the wells are closed. The DWP plans to build two new facilities to purify this water, but they haven’t even started construction yet, and it will be years before they’re completed.

Now maybe as you read this you’re saying, Oh, come on. It’s not so bleak. The weatherman says that El Niño is going to bring torrential rains to LA. All we need is a good wet year to fill up the reservoirs and recharge the aquifers and we’ll be okay. The drought will be over. Right?

Wrong.

Believe me, I hope we have a really wet winter this year. And if we get enough rain it could ease the drought for a couple of years. But it won’t solve the problem. All it will do is offer a reprieve.

Because the problem is not that we haven’t been getting enough rain in LA. The problem is that the snowpacks that we rely on for most of our water are shrinking steadily. This is not a new phenomenon. Snowpacks in the Western United States have been declining for decades. Check out this report issued by the American Meteorological Society.

Declining Mountain Snowpack in Western North America
American Meteorological Society, January 2005

It’s a lengthy document, and geared towards academics, so if you don’t want to plow through the whole thing I don’t blame you. Let me just give you this excerpt from the conclusion.

It is therefore likely that the losses in snowpack observed to date will continue and
even accelerate (Hamlet and Lettenmaier 1999a; Payne et al. 2004), with faster losses in milder climates like the Cascades and the slowest losses in the high peaks of the northern Rockies and southern Sierra. Indeed, the agreement in many details between observed changes in SWE [snow water equivalent, or water content of snowpacks] and simulated future changes is striking and leads us to answer the question at the beginning of this paragraph in the affirmative. It is becoming ever clearer that these projected declines in SWE, which are already well underway, will have profound consequences for water use in a region already contending with the clash between rising demands and increasing allocations of water for endangered fish and wildlife.

This report was written in 2005. Ten years later, the authors’ predictions have come true. We’ve seen California snowpacks decline drastically, and the data seems to indicate that they will continue to decline. This isn’t just limited to the West or to the US. This is part of a global trend. Check out the report released earlier this month by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Declining Snowpacks May Cut Many Nations’ Water

According to the DWP, between 2006 and 2010 we got about half our water from the Metropolitan Water District (SWP and Colorado River), about a third from the LA Aqueduct, and 11% from local groundwater. The water that flows from the SWP, Colorado River and LA Aqueduct originates as runoff from snowpacks. From all indications, those snowpacks are going to keep receding for the foreseeable future. That means we can no longer rely on the resources that used to supply about 90% of our water. And as for the aquifers that supply us with groundwater, it will be at least five years before the DWP can build the facilities to clean it up.

As the hillsides get drier, the risk of fire increases.

As the hillsides get drier, the risk of fire increases.

There are lots of ideas out there about how to cope with this crisis, recycling, greywater, stormwater capture, desalination. All of them have potential, but it’s going to be a long time before any of them start producing the quantities of water we need for a city of nearly 4,000,000 people. We can’t afford to squander water, but that’s exactly what our elected officials are doing. By allowing rampant, reckless development with no real planning behind it, they’re giving away water that we don’t have.

I am not saying we should put a halt to development. What we need to do immediately is make a realistic assessment of how much water will be consumed by all projects currently under construction, all those that are going through the approval process, and all those that are still in the planning stages. Then we need to set priorities, approving only projects that will truly benefit the people of LA, instead of continually greenlighting high-end high rises and luxury hotels.

Next we need to make a realistic assessment of how much water we can expect to have, and this is a good time to do so. The DWP is currently working on its 2015 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP), and a draft will be released for public comment early next year. We need to make sure that the UWMP accurately reflects our current situation. The Plan will certainly emphasize conservation, recycling and stormwater capture, and that’s all to the good. But it also needs to reflect the fact that every source of water the City has depended on for a hundred years has been severely compromised.

Finally, we need to make sure that our elected officials acknowledge these limitations and start doing some real planning for the future. These days the people at City Hall are fervently, proudly, recklessly pro-development. That’s nothing new for LA politicians. This City was built by out-of-control, irresponsible development. Except for a few brief periods when voter backlash scared the people at City Hall, developers have almost always gotten their way. But that’s got to end. We can’t afford to keep doing business as usual.

We don’t have the water.

WP 50 River

Inept or Corrupt? Does It Matter?

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Last week City Controller Ron Galperin published an audit detailing the City’s record on collecting and spending development impact fees. As I read the press release, it’s hard to say whether I was more shocked or angry. The upshot is that the City of LA is failing to collect tens of millions of dollars in fees from developers, and it’s not even spending the money that has been collected. Here’s the lead from the press release.

City Controller Ron Galperin issued an audit that found the City of Los Angeles is failing to exercise its power to charge citywide development impact fees, which State law says can be collected from developers to mitigate their projects’ impacts on neighborhoods and defray the costs of public facilities and infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, libraries, parks and police stations.

I have to ask, What the hell is wrong with out elected officials?! Are they so inept they don’t realize that we can and should collect this money? Or have they gotten so much campaign cash from developers that they feel compelled to let them off the hook when it comes to charging legitimate fees? Either way, these revelations are shocking. This City’s infrastructure is crumbling, we’re seeing an avalanche of new development which is putting an even greater strain on roads, water and public services, and the people at City Hall aren’t even asking for money that we need to address these problems.

The whole thing is just mind-boggling. Here’s another paragraph from the press release.

In preparing their report, auditors in Galperin’s office compared Los Angeles with other western cities. In FY 2013-14, San Francisco had $3.6 billion in permitted construction and collected $96 million in impact fees. Portland had $1.5 billion in permitted construction and collected $31 million. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had $5.3 billion in permitted construction but collected less than $5 million in impact fees. Based on these numbers, auditors said Los Angeles had the potential to collect tens of millions of dollars more in fees.

So even though the value of permitted projects in LA was greater than San Francisco and Portland put together, our local government collected less than 5% of the total fees received by those two cities. Again, I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

Recently Mayor Garcetti made a show of announcing a program to collect linkage fees from developers to fund affordable housing. But in 2011 the City hired a consultant to produce a report which showed that LA could be collecting between $37 million and $112 million annually. Why have our elected officials taken so long to act? It’s going to take at least another year for the City Council to enact this program, and during that time we’ll lose out on many more millions.

Here’s a quote from the letter that Galperin sent to the Mayor with the audit.

The City of Los Angeles’ approach to collecting and spending impact fees to date has been haphazard and most often neighborhood-specific rather than Citywide, as is customary in some other localities, and sometimes, not sensible. No central entity has been responsible for monitoring the fees. And key officials from various City departments told auditors they did not know what other departments were charging.

This City has so many pressing needs, and we’re constantly told by our elected officials that we don’t have the money to address those needs. But according to Galperin’s office, we’ve had the ability to access a major revenue stream that City Hall has almost completely ignored. It’s insane.

If you want to look at the audit, here’s the link.

Audit of Development Impact Fees

And after reading the audit, you might want to call your City Council rep and ask why we didn’t start collecting these fees years ago.

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

High-Speed on the Horizon?

Lt Comp 1 Db

Could we see universal high-speed connectivity come to Los Angeles in the near future? Maybe. The CityLinkLA initiative, backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, aims to make internet access available to all. Here’s a brief outline from the CityLinkLA web site.

CityLinkLA is an initiative designed to address both the digital divide and our virtual competitiveness. Launched in 2014 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, CityLinkLA is an effort to encourage the private sector to deploy advanced wireline and Wi-Fi digital communications networks so that every residence and business in Los Angeles has access to world-class, high-speed Internet and at prices comparable to those in other innovative communities around the world. The goal is to provide basic access to all for free or at a very low cost and gigabit (1 Gbps) or higher speed access at competitive rates. CityLinkLA is envisioned to include wired gigabit access to every home and business and as close to ubiquitous wireless coverage for the entire City as possible.

First, let me say that I totally support the goal of giving everybody high-speed access to the internet. And I give Garcetti and Blumenfield credit for getting the ball rolling on this. High-speed connectivity will play a major role in making urban centers competitive in the future, and other other cities have already gotten the jump on us. Tech is something Garcetti understands, and he’s done a great job of luring tech companies to the LA area. Entertainment and media companies will also see the attraction of widely available broadband access. And I’m glad the CityLinkLA web site clearly states that one of the goals is to make the internet available to everybody, regardless of income or neighborhood.

But I do have a few reservations. There are different ways to wire a city for universal access. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. Chattanooga’s network is owned by the city, and offers very high speeds to everyone for very low rates. Austin, on the other hand, is pursuing the same approach as LA. That is, inviting private industry the opportunity to do the job, in the hope that competition will keep rates low. And so far that doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. For details, check out the two articles below.

Chattanooga’s Super-Fast Publicly Owned Internet from CNN

Austin Shows Us What Broadband Competition Was Supposed to Look Like from TechDirt

Personally, I’d prefer to see LA offer broadband through a public utility, because I think it would lead to lower rates, more transparency and more control. Having said that, it’s important to note that Chattanooga is pretty small (population under 200,000) and LA is really big (population almost 4,000,000). There would certainly be huge hurdles to overcome in setting up a publicly owned network here. I’d like to know, though, if anybody really explored that possibility before opening this up to private companies.

My other reservation has to do with the fact that the City is offering some of its assets to the private sector in order to make the deal attractive. To a degree, this is reasonable, but I think we have to analyze this carefully to make sure we’re not compromising the City’s infrastructure or giving sweetheart deals to companies that stand to make a pile of money. In other words, we have to control the process, and we need to make sure we’re not getting ripped off.

I want to thank Stephanie Magnien Rockwell, Policy Director at Bob Blumenfield’s office, for her quick response to my e-mail asking for more information. She sent me the link to the council file on this initiative, which you’ll find below.

Council File: 13-0953, CityLinkLA

If you’re interested in getting more details, there’s tons of info here. It’s worth highlighting the fact that a number of neighborhood councils have submitted statements in support of the intitiative, though the South Robertson Neighborhood Council “requests that the City
include provisions protecting and requiring net neutrality”. Not a bad idea. For a thorough breakdown of the intitiative, click on this link to read the CAO’s analysis.

CAO’s Report on CityLinkLA Inititative

And here’s the link to the CityLinkLA web site.

CityLinkLA

This could be a real breakthrough for Los Angeles. High-speed access for all would be a huge step forward, but there are also huge risks involved. We need to stay informed and engaged as this process unfolds.