Mark McDermott

Mayor targets stormwater protection in Manhattan Beach

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A part of the stormwater system collapsed on Artesia Boulevard this year, one of many repairs the city has needed to make to its aging infrastructure. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach

by Mark McDermott

Every day, nearly every resident in Manhattan Beach sends waste towards the Pacific Ocean. A walk on the beach reveals the obvious stuff —  the thousands of pounds of plastics, pop cans, cigarette butts, paper, and miscellaneous detritus left behind by beachgoers each year. But there is a category of waste that makes its way to the ocean that is less obvious: the brake dust that drops from every vehicle every time it slows, the oil drippings found on parking spots throughout the city, the grass clippings landscapers sweep away every day, or the tiny whiffs of pesticides or herbicides that gardeners spray that don’t stay where intended.

Water takes this waste away. It could be someone hosing down a driveway, or a restaurant worker washing down soiled mats in an alleyway. Most significantly, every time it rains, every particulate on every non-porous surface —  like concrete — washes away. And in a coastal community, this means the waste finds its way into a nearby street drain and into the stormwater system, and thus into the ocean.

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“In the stormwater world, these are the sources [of pollution] you don’t think about that ultimately impact water quality,” said Stephanie  Katsouleas, the director of Public Works in Manhattan Beach.

These are known as non-point sources of pollution, the more diffuse forms of waste that we don’t tend to see, as opposed to point-source sources of pollution like power plant emissions or trash in the streets.

“Washing cars is another non-point source, those little things you don’t think about that collectively matter,” Katsouleas said. “Those are our challenges.”

Once runoff reaches the ocean, none of the outcomes are good: the waste is consumed by wildlife, or else it clouds the water and otherwise impacts the water quality through which marine life subsists. The bottom line is the ocean becomes less alive with each gallon of waste-laden stormwater runoff.

The City of Manhattan Beach employs a small army to combat this pollution. At the forefront is the weekly street sweeping, but there are a lot of other components: a “porter service” that constantly surveys the city to make sure excess trash isn’t finding its way into stormwater drains, ongoing pressure washes that target street  and sidewalk waste not picked up by the larger street sweeping machines, sump pumps that keep water moving throughout the stormwater system, diversion projects that prevent some of the water from ever making it to the ocean but instead towards recycled uses, and a large team of landscapers, maintenance workers, as well as analysts and consultants, who work to keep the city in compliance with various county, state, and federal laws regarding stormwater. And of course there are also extensive underground piping, much of it more than a half century old and thus constantly in need of monitoring and upgrading.

Katsouleas said that much of this system was constructed in the 1950s and 1960, when Manhattan Beach was mainly small bungalows and there were more yards and less concrete. The city’s larger houses and bigger projects have traded thousands of acres of permeable surfaces for impervious areas, meaning both more waste and more water going to the ocean, often through pipes installed 50 to 70 years ago.

“We are not just dealing with pollution, but flow,” she said. “We constantly have to look at the system. Are the pipes big enough to handle all the water we have running off?”

Drastic weather sometimes causes the stormwater system to overflow. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach

Every year, an estimated 649,746,780 gallons of runoff water makes it to the Pacific in Manhattan Beach alone, according to calculations made by Craig Cadwallader, the president of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, based on numbers compiled for the Beach Cities Enhanced Watershed Management Program.

Cadwallader identified stormwater as one of the biggest environmental issues in the region, not only as a matter of pollution, but conservation, given the increasing prevalence of drought in an already arid area.

“We need to capture, clean, and reuse every drop of water possible,” he said.

Enter Mayor Nancy Hersman, who in her very first actions as mayor on June 4 vowed to use her time at the helm of the city to bring attention to stormwater issues —  both the pollution itself, and the city’s dysfunctional way of funding its stormwater programs. As she emphasized at the dais, this was not a “sexy” issue to choose, but she noted that it was something that has bothered her since she first examined a city budget.

“Our city has been leading the way on environmental issues, and storm runoff is a big issue, right?” Hersman said. “So I’d like to get a real education campaign going and get our community behind this.”

In an interview, Hersman recalled first sitting down with City Manager Bruce Moe (who was then finance director) and realizing the complexity of the city budget, which in addition to the General Fund has several “enterprise” funds which are intended to provide goods and services to residents on a direct cost-for-service basis. The idea is that these are funds essentially based on supply and demand —  the money generated is intended to equate exactly with the money needed expenses incurred, and can be used only for that purpose.  Other examples of enterprise funds include trash service and water. In contrast, the city’s General Fund covers more general needs, including services as police, fire and parks, as well as planning, community development and administrative support services.

The problem is that many of these enterprise funds are no longer fully funded. Since the passage of Prop. 218 in 1996, adjusting the fees relating to these enterprise program requires approval by city voters, and relatively arcane policy matters such as stormwater funding do not easily attract voter support. The upshot is the city’s Stormwater Fund has been upside down for 13 years, causing millions of dollars to be diverted from the General Fund; last year, that cost rose to $1.5 million annually in funds that needed to be transferred from the city’s $75 million General Fund.

“You start to understand these different pieces to this big puzzle, and particularly looking at Public Works and where the funding is coming from for each one of these projects,” Hersman said. “You have to come up with the funding for each one of these projects, and so stormwater projects have to be paid for —  I mean, we are required by federal and state law to protect the ocean, to protect the runoff going into the ocean. And it is an environmental issue, obviously.”

Hersman said she has already run into some opposition. Some regard the issue as purely a budgetary one, and while Hersman acknowledges that that is one prism through which to look at stormwater funding, she argues that this misses the bigger picture.

“It’s just going to get more and more problematic,” Hersman said. “With climate change, we have more and bigger storms, and runoff becomes more and more. So we need to understand what it is, to be able to say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to open up my pocketbook.’”

City surveys, however, on the issue have shown a lack of public support to pay more for stormwater programs. Hersman is not deterred by this, and in fact sees this as exactly the reason why she should use the pulpit provided as mayor to better engage residents about stormwater issues.

“Nobody wants to pay for it,” she said. “Nobody wants to increase taxes. So my feeling is maybe it’s because people just don’t understand. When you are better educated on a subject, it’s like, ‘Okay, I get that.’ When you see it is coming from the General Fund, well, that’s a really important fund. It’s our police, our fire, our Parks and Rec, all of that comes from the General Fund, and we are just peeling off a million and a half every year. It’s a problem.”

At present, residents pay $19 a year into the Stormwater Fund, an assessment that appears on property tax bills. According to the City Manager’s office, rough calculations indicate the actual current cost at $190 per property annually.

Hersman said the city’s Stormwater Fund problem is an unintended consequence of Prop. 218.

“Nobody thought to put a CPI in there, or some type of an increase [mechanism],” she said. “So here we sit with 1996 numbers with a 2019 problem.”

“This is a direct correlation to your activities as a resident,” Katsouleas said. “Right now, you are not paying for 100 percent of cost to address the pollution you generate in our city. I think what the mayor wants to do is just go through a Prop. 218 vote in order to true up costs. This isn’t just a random thing. It’s directly correlated to your benefits and activities as a resident. Ultimately, our residents pay a bigger price when it’s not done. People swimming in the ocean are really paying the price if they get sick. We have a an active, engaged and outdoor community; we enjoy that benefit [of ocean use], and are more directly impacted.”

In a larger sense, Hersman said, environmentalism requires each of us to true up our actions with their impacts.

“I understand if people think this is just a budget issue,” the mayor said. “But it really is an environmental issue.”

Councilperson Richard Montgomery lauded the mayor, noting that leadership often means raising matters that aren’t easily addressed.

“It is long overdue and necessary,” Montgomery said. “It’s not a sexy project, but I can’t think of another project we need more.”

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