More Green, Less Gray

Los Angeles County’s Safe, Clean Water Program (SCWP) uses geospatial technology to manage, report, and track nearly 200 stormwater projects and studies to show taxpayers how improvements are being made to the local water supply.

The winter storms that drenched much of California from December 2022 through March 2023 refilled reservoirs. However, this increased stormwater and snowmelt was mostly uncaptured because the state’s outdated infrastructure was designed to swiftly carry rainwater to the ocean.

LA County aims to change that.

In a typical year, about 15 inches of rain falls in the Los Angeles area. Nearly half of that fell in August 2023 as the aftermath of a historical tropical storm, a remnant of Hurricane Hilary, passed through Southern California. Roughly a third of the water supply in the area comes from locally pumped groundwater that is continually replenished by percolation when it rains. Nevertheless, not all rain can be captured so it can be used as drinking water or used to restock the groundwater. Some years have seen more than 100 billion gallons of flow into the Pacific Ocean.

The County of Los Angeles Equity Explorer provides in-depth details about the makeup and social vulnerability of people and communities.

That’s a big reason voters approved Measure W in 2018. It created LA County’s SCWP, which receives $280 million in tax dollars per year. Now in its fifth year, the program has funded more than 126 stormwater improvement projects. Most use solutions that mimic natural processes to increase water supply, improve water quality, protect public health, and invigorate communities.

SCWP projects include green infrastructure elements such as infiltration basins, rain gardens, bioswales [which are landscape features the collect polluted stormwater runoff], dry wells, wetlands, and permeable pavement. This green infrastructure contrasts with gray infrastructure—such as storm drains, which are typically built with concrete and steel—that are designed to move water underground and away from property.

SCWP administrators map and track each project using GIS. The map provides a better understanding of each project with information about the project’s location and goals. Los Angeles residents can view the map to see their tax dollars at work.

“Mapping provides a ‘wow’ element for us to show progress to interested stakeholders and the public,” said Kirk Allen, senior civil engineer at LA County Public Works and lead administrator of the SCWP portal. “They can see how these projects are equitably distributed. It adds a perspective you can’t do without a map.”

Local Approaches to Water Concerns

At over 4,000 square miles, Los Angeles County is one of the largest in the nation, with a population of 9.8 million residents. It contains six major watersheds where rain and runoff collect and then drain into a river, lake, reservoir, or the ocean.

The Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD), administered by LA County Public Works, is one of the key stewards of these watersheds, which it manages with various infrastructure and programs. LACFCD assists in improving the region’s clean drinking water, recreation, and wildlife habitats. It also leads efforts to reduce potential hazards caused by flooding and mudflows.

SCWP brings together watershed and infrastructure managers from LACFCD, water agencies, local and county governments, businesses, academia, nonprofits, and other organizations. Many of the projects developed through the SCWP program include input from community-based organizations that focus on public health and environmental conservation.

For instance, in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino community, the City of Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Department engaged with a local organization, Promesa Boyle Heights, during the conceptual phase of the Hollenbeck Park Lake Rehabilitation Project and will involve the department during its ongoing development. The project will beautify the park, mitigate flooding, and teach youth about water resources.

Each locally led SCWP project addresses important outcomes such as the following:

Improving Quality of Life

Equity is a guiding principle of the SCWP. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, communities of color in Los Angeles lack the green space that not only cools neighborhoods but soaks up rainwater. And these communities face the greatest burden from flooding.

SCWP project applicants and those involved in the governance of the program are encouraged to consider the needs of the community. They have access to the County of Los Angeles Equity Explorer, which is a map-based tool and collection datasets that can be used to identify areas where communities are experiencing disadvantages. It pinpoints places where historical racism and inequities in investment have occurred, and land-use planning has been lacking. The SCWP prioritizes the development of projects in those areas with input from the community about the enhancements they want to see.

By focusing attention on neglected areas, SCWP collaborators want to improve the quality of life for more people, especially those living in treeless paved places that retain more heat. Researchers found that US residents in low-income neighborhoods endure temperatures that are higher by 7 degrees Fahrenheit than residents in wealthy neighborhoods. Proximity to parks, plant life, and water bodies provides cooler places to escape the harmful impacts of heat.

“The maps help us orient projects in relation to disadvantaged communities,” Allen said. “They help us steward public dollars to help make water infrastructure more resilient and cleaner for the communities we serve.”

The County of Los Angeles Equity Explorer provides in-depth details about the makeup and social vulnerability of people and communities.

Benefits for Watersheds and Residents

Projects along the Lower Los Angeles River Watershed Area, one of the nine areas within SCWP, collectively advance the goals of the program. The Safe Clean Water Portal, which is accessible to the public, showcases funded, completed, and ongoing projects. The site is a repository for project-specific information and includes the benefits provided by each project.

“Having a map showcases the drainage area and community benefits,” Allen said. “The map in the SCWP portal highlights the potential relationships between projects and is a good resource to facilitate discussion among stormwater management groups. Those involved can easily analyze the map and its accompanying information, identify opportunities for collaboration, and better understand how projects (individually and collectively) can contribute to the effectiveness of the regional stormwater capture system. This tool, combined with others, promotes informed decision-making, coordination of efforts, and efficient resource allocation.”

As of August 2023, the SCWP has funded 126 stormwater infrastructure program projects, 37 technical resources program feasibility studies, and 18 scientific studies. The following SCWP projects are examples of the scope and benefits of these projects.

The John Anson Ford Park Infiltration Cistern project captures water under baseball and soccer fields. This park in the Bell Gardens neighborhood hosts hundreds of games in a community that is 95 percent Latino. The project diverts stormwater from the Lower Los Angeles River to recharge groundwater and reduce pollutants. Restoration efforts include new turf, trees, landscaping, irrigation, lighting, paving, and signage. The $9.9 million project will capture and treat 22-acre-feet of stormwater. [An acre-foot is a volumetric unit of measurement equal to the volume of a sheet of water one acre in area and one foot in depth.]

The Urban Orchard Project will turn 30 acres of post-industrial land into a grove of 200 fruit trees, a playground, and wetlands. This $5.4 million stormwater retention project will capture and filter 32 million gallons of stormwater for reuse on-site.

The Urban Orchard Project will turn 30 acres of postindustrial land into a grove of 200 fruit trees, a playground, and wetlands. Led by Trust for Public Land, the project’s landscaping will create shade and contribute fresh produce to the community. It will also include walking paths, native plants, and an education garden. The wetlands will provide habitat for native fish, migratory birds, and pollinators. The urban orchard will cool the air, reduce air pollution, and create 30 jobs for underserved youth. The $5.4 million stormwater retention project will capture and filter 32 million gallons of stormwater for reuse on-site.

The Lynwood City Park Stormwater Capture Project enhances an existing park. It will add permeable pavement in the parking lot and an underground storage reservoir. Trees will provide shade to reduce the heat island effect and improve flood management. The restoration effort will include planting native landscapes and a butterfly garden along with developing two new soccer fields. Because the park is next to the Lynwood Youth Center and Lynwood Middle School, it allows educators to provide an integrative setting for teaching habitat restoration, water conservation, erosion control, and stormwater management. The $12.9 million restoration and water management project will capture and treat 647 acre-feet of stormwater.

Since Measure W passed and the SCWP has been in progress, many projects have advanced the program’s complex goals and accelerated climate resilience in Los Angeles County.

About the authors

Christa is an experienced water industry professional with 20 years of success using and promoting technology to solve problems in the water industry. She is recognized for water industry thought leadership, strategic thinking, and building success with organizations across the globe. She is a passionate GIS advocate, lifelong learner, and collaborator. Christa has a diverse background, with experience in conversion from paper to digital, drafting and design of engineering plans, superfund site remediation, environmental mitigation, managing geographic information systems, and implementation of new technology. She is a certified GIS Professional and holds bachelor’s degrees in Geography & Environmental Studies and a graduate degree in Geography.

Sophia Garcia is Esri’s industry solutions specialist for equity and civic nonprofit organizations. In her previous work at the Dolores Huerta Foundation and as a consultant, she collaborated with community organizations and local governments across California to enact equitable redistricting and champion community GIS.