Let’s figure out how to save the storm water

Guest opinion

Earlier this fall, heavy rains pounded the Los Angeles region. Water poured onto our streets and sidewalks, raced through gutters and drains, and vanished into the Pacific Ocean. Result: another lost opportunity for Los Angeles County.

During that September storm, Los Angeles County saw more than 2.5 inches of rain—10 times the amount we usually get at this time of year. Thanks to our existing regional stormwater infrastructure, some of that water was saved, but it could have been so much more.

We should be saving and reusing every drop of storm water to help keep our tree canopy alive, to further replenish depleted underground aquifers and to help us become less reliant on imported water sources.

If the El Niño predictions come true, Southern California will see much more rain over the next few months. We know that one wet winter can’t solve the drought or make us more water resilient. We also know that conservation alone won’t be the cure-all.

While Angelenos have resoundingly answered Gov. Jerry Brown’s call to reduce water use, that reduction is only part of the equation. We also need a 21st-century stormwater infrastructure that will save as much rain as possible instead of losing it to the ocean.

With efficient infrastructure, we can capture more storm runoff, clean it and store it for later use. We can clean up our polluted water ways, create good-paying jobs and make our communities more sustainable and livable.

And we know how to do this: we already have the technology and engineering expertise to reshape our concrete basin into a “green sponge” by building regional and neighborhood-scale water capture projects.

Take, for instance, Sun Valley Park, where the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, the City of Los Angeles and the environmental organization Tree- People came together to build a stormwater treatment system under a park. This multi-benefit project not only fixed a chronic local flood problem, in only a decade it has captured nearly 250 acre-feet of storm water—enough to supply about 50 families of four each year—that would have otherwise been lost to the ocean.

Other cities, like Philadelphia, are doing this on a much larger scale. So what’s stopping L.A. County from scaling up?

First, we need better cooperation. Local government entities, including cities, water providers and wastewater utilities, need to look beyond their core missions and come together around green infrastructure planning and construction.

Second, constructing the necessary stormwater infrastructure will require a sustained investment of funds. It isn’t cheap, but it’s far less expensive than doing nothing. So far, investment in new stormwater infrastructure has been intermittent and inadequate. The region’s governments must invest more in infrastructure to capture and reuse rainfall. Recent surveys show that the public supports investing in water. Now is the right time to step up.

The prospect of an epic season of winter storms in the middle of an historic drought has to make us all rethink our relationship with storm water. Losing billions of gallons of rainwater, simply because we lack the infrastructure or political will to capture it, is just not smart. We need to do it now.

There is no time, or water, to waste.

Kuehl’s Third District includes Calabasas, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village.

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