How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion

The megapolis on California’s southern coast stretches from Ventura County on the northern end, through Los Angeles County, Orange County, down to San Diego County on the border with Mexico. It also includes the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Altogether these six counties have a population of 20.5 million residents. According to the California Department of Water Resources, urban users consume 3.7 million acre feet of water per year, and the remaining agricultural users in this region consume an additional 700,000 acre feet.

Much of this water is imported. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in these Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

California’s Plumbing System
The major interbasin systems of water conveyance, commonly known as aqueducts

California’s Overall Water Supplies Must Increase

Californians have already made tremendous strides conserving water, and the potential savings from more stringent conservation mandates may not yield significant additional savings. Population growth is likely to offset whatever remaining savings that may be achievable via additional conservation.

Meanwhile, the state mandated water requirements for California’s ecosystems continue to increase. The California State Water Board is finalizing “frameworks” that will increase the minimum amount of flow required to be maintained in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers order to better protect fish habitat and reduce salinity in the Delta. And, of course, these rivers, along with the Owens and Colorado rivers, are susceptible to droughts which periodically put severe strain on water users in California.

At about the same time, in 2015, California’s legislature began regulating groundwater withdrawals. This measure, while long overdue, puts additional pressure on urban and agricultural users.

California’s water requirements for healthy ecosystems, a robust and growing farm economy, as well as a growing urban population, are set to exceed available supply. Conservation cannot return enough water to the system to fix the problem.

How Can Water Supplies Increase?

In Southern California, runoff capture is an option that appears to have great potential. Despite its arid climate and perennial low rainfall, nearly every year a few storm systems bring torrential rains to the South Coast, inundating the landscape. Until the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic culvert starting in 1938, it would routinely flood, with the overflow filling huge aquifers beneath the city. Those aquifers remain, although many are contaminated and require mitigation. Runoff harvesting for aquifer storage represents one tremendous opportunity for Southern Californians to increase their supply of water.

The other possibilities are sewage recycling and desalination. In both cases, Southern California already boasts some of the most advanced plants in the world. The potential for these two technologies to deliver massive quantities of potable water, over a million acre feet per year each, is now predicated more on political and financial considerations than technological challenges.

Recycling Waste Water

Orange County leads the United States in recycling waste water. The Orange County Sanitation District treats 145,000 acre feet per year (130 million gallons per day – “MGD”), sending all of it to the Orange County Water District’s “Ground Water Replenishment System” plant for advanced treatment. The GWRS plant is the biggest of its kind in the world. After being treated to potable standards, 124,000 acre feet per year (110 million GPD), or 85 percent of the waste water, is then injected into aquifers to be stored and pumped back up and reused by residents as potable water. The remainder, containing no toxins and with fewer total dissolved solids than seawater, is discharged harmlessly into the ocean.

Currently the combined water districts in California’s Southland discharge about 1.5 million acre feet (1.3 billion GPD) of treated wastewater each year into the Pacific Ocean. Only a small percentage of this discharge is the treated brine from recycled water. But by using the advanced treatment methods as are employed in Orange County, 85% of wastewater can be recycled to potable standards. This means that merely through water reuse, there is the potential to recycle up to another 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Needless to say, implementing a solution at this scale would require major challenges to be overcome. Currently California’s water districts are only permitted to engage in “indirect potable reuse,” which means the recycled water must be stored in an aquifer or a reservoir prior to being processed as drinking water and entering the water supply. By 2023, it is expected the California Water Board will have completed regulations governing “direct potable reuse,” which would allow recycled water to be immediately returned to the water supply without the intermediate step of being stored in an aquifer or reservoir. In the meantime, it is unlikely that there are enough uncontaminated aquifers or available reservoirs to store the amount of recycled water that could be produced.

Desalinating Seawater

The other source of new water for Southern California, desalination, is already realized in an operating plant, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County. This plant produces 56,000 acre feet per year (50 MGD) of fresh water by processing twice that amount of seawater. It is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is co-located with the Encina Power Station, a facility that uses far more seawater per year, roughly ten times as much, for its cooling systems. The Carlsbad facility diverts a portion of that water for desalination treatment, then returns the saltier “brine” to the much larger outflow of cooling water at the power plant.

Objections to desalination are many, but none of them are insurmountable. The desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, for example, will not have the benefit of being co-located with a power plant that consumes far more seawater for its cooling system. Instead, this proposed plant – which will have the same capacity as the Carlsbad plant – will use a large array of “wet filters” situated about 1,500 feet offshore, on the seabed about 40 feet below the surface, to gently intake seawater that can be pumped back to the plant without disrupting marine life. The outgoing brine containing 6 percent salt (compared to 3% in seawater) will be discharged under pressure from an underwater pipe extending about 1,800 feet offshore. By discharging the brine under pressure, it will be instantly disbursed and immediately dissipated in the powerful California current.

While desalination is considered to be energy intensive, a careful comparison of the energy cost to desalinate seawater reveals an interesting fact. It takes a roughly equivalent amount of electricity to power the pumps on the California aqueduct, where six pumping stations lift the water repeatedly as it flows from north to south. To guarantee the water flows south, the California aqueduct is sloped downward by roughly one foot per mile of length, meaning pump stations are essential. The big lift, of course, is over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the only way to import water into the Los Angeles basin.

Barriers to Implementation – Permitting & Lawsuits

The technological barriers to large scale implementation of water recycling and desalination, while significant, are not the primary impediments. Permitting and financing are far bigger challenges. Moreover, financing costs for these mega projects become more prohibitive because of the difficulties in permitting.

The process necessary to construct the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is illustrative of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get construction permits. The contractor has been involved in the permitting process for 16 years already, and despite significant progress to-date, still expects approval, if it comes, to take another 2-3 years.

One of the problems with permitting most infrastructure in California is that several agencies are involved. These agencies can actually have conflicting requirements. Applicants also end up having to answer the same questions over and over, because the agencies don’t share information. And over the course of decades or more, the regulations change, meaning the applicant has to start the process over again. Compounding the difficulties for applicants are endless rounds of litigation, primarily from well-funded environmentalist organizations. The failure to-date of California’s lawmakers to reform CEQA make these lawsuits potentially endless.

Barriers to Implementation – Financing

Even if permitting were streamlined, and all technical challenges were overcome, it would be a mistake to be glib about financing costs. Based on the actual total cost for the Carlsbad desalination plant, just under $1.0 billion for a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year, the capital costs to desalinate a million acre feet of seawater would be a daunting $18.0 billion. On the other hand, with permitting reforms, such as creating a one-stop ombudsman agency to adjudicate conflicting regulations and exercise real clout among the dozens of agencies with a stake in the permitting process, billions could be shaved off that total. Similarly, CEQA reforms could shave additional billions off the total. How much could be saved?

The Sorek desalination plant, commissioned in Israel in 2015, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 185,000 acre feet of water per year. Compared to Carlsbad, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. While there’s undoubtedly more to this story, it is also undeniable that other developed nations are able to deploy large scale desalination plants at far lower costs than here in California.

Financing costs for water recycling, while still staggering, are (at least in California) not comparable to those for desalination. The GWRS water recycling plant in Orange County was built at a capital cost of $905 million – $481 million was the initial cost, the first expansion cost $142 million, and the final expansion cost $282 million. This equates to a capital cost of $7,300 per acre foot of annual yield. If that price were to apply for new facilities to be constructed elsewhere in the southland, one million acre feet of recycling capacity could be built for $7.3 billion. Until there is direct potable reuse, however, it would be necessary to add to that cost the expense of either constructing storage reservoirs, or decontaminating aquifers for underground storage.

It’s anybody’s guess, but with reasonable reforms to contain costs, and taking into account additional investments in aquifer mitigation, a budget to make California’s Southland water independent might look like this:

  • 1.0 million acre feet from water recycling – $7.5 billion
  • 1.0 million acre feet from desalination – $15.0 billion
  • 0.5 million acre feet from runoff capture and aquifer mitigation – $7.5 billion

Total – $30 billion.
How much again is that bullet train? Water abundance in California vs. high speed rail

While runoff capture, water recycling, and desalination have the potential to make Southern California’s coastal megapolis water independent, it will take extraordinary political will and innovative financing to make it happen. The first step is for California’s voters and policymakers alike to recognize that conservation is not enough, that water supplies must be increased. Once the political will is established, it will be necessary to streamline the regulatory process, so cities, water agencies, and private contractors can pursue supply oriented solutions, at realistic prices, with a reasonable certainty that their applications will be approved.

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Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared on the website of the California Policy Center.

Mobile Home Rent Control Measure Passed in L.A. County

Mobile HomesLos Angeles County Supervisors approved a mobile home park rent-control ordinance on Tuesday for unincorporated areas that will limit rental pad inflation to 3 percent a year — the latest sign of high housing costs in L.A.

The Los Angeles Times reported the supervisors approved the Mobilehome Rent Regulation Ordinance by a 3-to-1 vote. It initially provides a 180-day temporary limit on rent increases to maximum of 3 percent a year for annual or short term leases. The ordinance is scheduled to come back before the supervisors next month for another vote to make it permanent.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who sponsored the rent control measure that will impact about 8,500 mobile home tenants, told Southern California Public Radio that she proposed the ordinance because skyrocketing apartment rents are spilling over to mobile home pad rentals.

Hahn argued that with 100 California communities already having passed rent control laws to protect mobile home tenants, “If we believe in affordable housing, and we believe in keeping these people from being homeless, we should really protect people who are in our mobile home parks in L.A. County.”

Hahn claimed that LA County needs an immediate temporary ordinance to stop mobile home operators from raising rents before a study is conducted to measure if tenants are rent-burdened. But the language of her ordinance states that it can be “extended or replaced by the Board of Supervisors.”

According to a June report from Apartment List, the median rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles was $1,750, and $1,360 for a one-bedroom unit. That was up 3.2 percent, about the same as inflation in the last 12 months, but down from the 6 percent average annual rate since 2015 that had been more than triple the rate of inflation.

Patricia Boerger of the Manufactured Housing Institute told Curbed late last year: “Mobile homes in the 1960s were for young people who were starting out and making their place in the world. Anything after 1976, though, can’t be called a mobile home.”

With the average sales price for a new manufactured home approximately $292,600 less than a site-built home, mobile homes are  a form of low-cost housing for 18 million Americans with an average income is about $28,300 a year and 13 percent on food stamps.

According to the Mobile Home Park Homeowners Allegiance, most residents own their mobile home but rent a pad from a landlord. Allegiance member Kort & Scott Mobile Home Parks, for example, is one of the largest operators in California and has 13 parks in Los Angeles County. K&S monthly pad rents in L.A. County range from a low in Carson of $398 at Laco Mobile Home Park and $420 a month in Carson Gardens Trailer Lodge, to a high of $1,700 a month at the Royal Western Mobile Home Park in Gardena.

Jarryd Gonzales, spokesperson for the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association, told SCPR before the vote that the mobile home park owners do not believe that a crisis exists: “We’re saying take a wait-and-see approach, as opposed to rushing right in and limiting increases on rent, and going on in with a rent control ordinance.”

Gonzales argued that rent control could have unintended negative consequences, including cutting off capital improvements, or potentially causing mobile home park operators to shut down, evict the tenants, and sell their property.

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

The End of the Home-Buying Frenzy

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image14115451You may have seen recent news accounts about how home sales have slowed nationwide. So I got curious: What’s going on in the San Fernando Valley area?

I looked back at the local home-sales stats we publish in the Business Journal, courtesy of Redfin. And in the Valley area, home sales have indeed slowed. In fact, they were down way more here than in the rest of the country, at least in June, which is the latest reporting period.

Nationwide, sales of existing homes in June were down 2.2 percent from June of last year. But they were down 11 percent in the portion of the Valley area that’s in Los Angeles County. In Ventura County, it’s more dramatic: Home sales were down 23 percent.

That’s a huge drop off. But then I thought: Wait a minute! There’s a housing shortage here. The sharp slowdown in sales may result from the fact that there just aren’t many homes to buy.

But that supposition appears to be wrong. Home listings – the number of homes for sale – have increased over the last year. The number of unsold homes was up 1 percent in the Los Angeles County portion of the Valley area (including the San Fernando Valley and such areas as Burbank, Calabasas, Glendale, Santa Clarita and Palmdale).

Again, it’s more dramatic in Ventura County. The inventory of homes for sale in June was 3 percent higher than one year earlier.

In short, home sales were down in June while the inventory of unsold homes went up.

Can we declare that the housing shortage is over? No, but we can say that the shortage is now less severe.

Now that I think about it, this slowdown in house-buying shouldn’t be all that surprising. Mortgage interest rates have been going up, making monthly payments higher.

And have you noticed in recent months the sudden reappearance of for-sale signs? For a couple of years, for-sale signs were scarce. Whenever a home came up for sale, the broker who got the listing quickly showed it to his or her roster of home buyers, and a deal was quickly made before a sign was ever planted in the yard.

But lately, not only is there a proliferation of for-sale signs but even some open houses. Again, I don’t think we can declare the housing shortage dead. However, the buying frenzy – all-cash offers above asking price on the day the house hit the market – appears headed to the hospice.

What about prices? Since home sales drooped in June as the supply expanded, surely that means prices went down, right? Well, ahem, no.

According to our Redfin data, the median price per square foot in June was up 4.2 percent in Ventura County from the previous June, and up 7 percent in the Los Angeles County portion of the Valley area. From the previous month, prices were up in Ventura County and flat in the L.A. portion of the Valley.

The fact that prices are not going down in the face of weakening sales and higher mortgage rates seems to defy reason.

But here’s a thought: All the prices mentioned above are for June. Since then, things may have changed. After all, whenever a slowdown takes hold, the old psychology may linger. It may take a while, but reality eventually sets in and prices inevitably drop. Maybe that just had not happened yet in June.

Here’s a slight bit of anecdotal evidence: A home in my neighborhood went up for sale in April. I walked by it last week. The house still has a for-sale sign in front, although the owners apparently have moved out. According to Zillow, the seller has cut the price three times for a total of 13 percent. The sales sheet describes them as “super motivated,” which I assume means they’ll slice the price some more.

Last year, that house probably would have been snatched up quickly regardless of price. But this year, after more than three months and three price cuts, still no deal.

The housing shortage is not over. In the big picture, there are still too few houses. However, the worst of the house-buying frenzy does appear to be finished or at least abating. The price cutting will surely follow.

Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California Special Districts: Hiding in Plain Sight

Los Angeles Metro TransitSpecial districts in California are the unnoticed variant of local government entities. Although they spend over $42 billion annually, most taxpayers don’t give these ubiquitous agencies much thought. They vary from modest vector control districts to behemoths like the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit authority, an agency that has a billion-dollar budget and, despite declining ridership, continues efforts to suck ever more pennies from every dollar spent in Los Angeles County.

The problem with these semi-autonomous agencies is that it is extremely difficult to determine whether or not taxpayers are receiving good value for every one of the billions of dollars being spent by agencies that, in many cases, are governed by unelected political appointees. Even when these boards are directly elected, many special districts do not receive the same level of scrutiny as do city and county governments.

Most taxpayers support local control, but they also want to see local governments and special districts maintain maximum transparency, follow the Brown Act and post important fiscal information on their websites. This information is a valuable asset to those who want to look over the shoulders of elected officials and bureaucrats to make certain that funds are appropriately spent. Sadly, this information is not always readily available and accountability is lacking.

While some agencies may willfully violate the law, in many instances, illegal actions are simply oversights. But because these districts tend to operate “under the radar” improper procedures may be overlooked for years. For example, in 2014 it was discovered that a fire district was illegally collecting tax proceeds from property owners outside the district boundaries and that practice had been ongoing for several years. It took a special act of the Legislature to reimburse property owners for the illegal taxes they had paid. With greater transparency, this problem would likely have been avoided.

In addition to errors that go uncorrected due to secretive management practices, many of these agencies are hoarding vast quantities of cash. The large reserves are often in amounts that are in multiples of a district’s annual budget and not justified by serious plans for major capital investment with a realistic timeline for construction.

Adding insult to injury, despite the fact that most are in a solid financial position, special districts have been uniting to lobby for higher taxes. The California Special Districts Association, as well as other local government associations, has ramped up efforts to eliminate Proposition 13’s two-thirds vote requirement for approval of new taxes for infrastructure improvements.

Clearly, special districts deserve to be noticed both for the worthwhile services they provide as well as their potential for mischief at taxpayers’ expense. No longer should these agencies be allowed to hide in plain site.

In dealing with special districts, good, bad and indifferent, taxpayers’ and service users’ most powerful tool is awareness. These agencies control billions of dollars and taxpayers have the right to demand accountability. While local control should remain the objective, the Legislature can help by strengthening guidelines on the maintenance of reserve funds, which for many districts greatly exceed any potential need, as well as mandating periodic reporting and publication of financial reports on line.

Taxpayers should also take heart from knowing that special districts are getting renewed scrutiny from oversight agencies. Last week, the California Commission for State Government Organization and Economy, also known as the Little Hoover Commission, held hearings on some of the perceived abuses by California’s myriad special districts. The Commission specifically requested testimony from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association on several issues including the practice of many districts to hoard taxpayer dollars.

Enhanced oversight of special districts can deter some of the well documented instances of bad behavior reported by the Little Hoover Commission and other investigative interests. Whether that oversight comes from taxpayer groups, government oversight agencies, the media or individual taxpayers, it is especially important to drag these often unknown agencies into the sunlight so that citizens can more clearly see what they are doing and how they are spending our money.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece was originally published by HJTA.org

Is Coffee the New Gold Standard?

Since 1971, the United States has been off the gold standard. Instead of the value of the dollar being defined in terms of gold, our currency is said to be backed by “The full faith and credit of the United States.”

However, listening to politicians, the new standard for backing taxpayer dollars may be coffee, or, more specifically, the latte.

coffee latteEndorsing efforts to impose a parcel tax on property owners to support parks — parks that have been purposely ignored in the Los Angeles County general fund budget — Supervisor Hilda Solis trivialized the tax saying, “For Pete’s sake, what does it amount to for the average voter, a latte a month at Starbucks?” Her colleague, Sheila Kuehl, upped the ante, gleefully saying the permanent property tax increase would be like, walking into Starbucks and getting anything you want because parks are free. “I proudly support taxing and spending,” she added.

A dozen years ago, I wrote the following about the way politicians deceptively describe tax increases: Public officials pushing for a tax increase love to break the cost to taxpayers down to insignificant sounding amounts, usually the cost per month, or even the cost per day, and add the words “it’s only.”

I added that the award for the most arrogant example of using “it’s only” should go to the Los Angeles Community College Chancellor who had described the cost of a new bond as “the equivalent of one regular latte a month,” and I asked if the latte — a drink now costing nearly four bucks — would become the new standard by which taxes are measured.

Regrettably, I was prescient. Those promoting taxes in this manner assume that everyone can, like them, afford to hang out at trendy boutique coffee shops.

The reality is that millions of Californians, including millions of homeowners, buy their coffee already ground, and, for them, four dollars will pay for several weeks’ worth of the caffeinated beverage. These are the same folks who are already hammered by California’s high sales, gas and income taxes. Few of them can afford to spend much at Starbucks, or any other place serving overpriced, exotic coffee drinks.

However, if the tax raisers could be permanently bought off for four dollars a month, many taxpayers would gladly take that deal. Sadly, that would not even come close to satisfying the greed of the political class. For example, Los Angeles County is considering a second new tax for homeless services. The city of Los Angeles is seeking its own “homeless” tax and the local transportation authority is asking voters to approve an increase in the sales tax.

Those outside the Los Angeles area should be careful not to be tempted to relax, since scores of additional taxes, and as many as several hundred bonds that increase property taxes, are expected to be placed on the November ballot by other local jurisdictions. And let’s not forget the income tax and tobacco taxes that will appear on the state ballot.

These taxes are cumulative, not just a latte here and a latte there. Los Angeles Supervisor Don Knabe, who voted against the parks tax, may have best summed up the problem for California taxpayers when he observed that between the state, the counties and the cities, government agencies are asking everyone to buy a Starbucks franchise.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.