California’s drought has brought into stark relief how badly the state has mismanaged its water resources. The state has failed to recognize the inherent risk of drought and supply disruption due to its need to transport water from lengthy distances to its main population centers. By not pricing this risk into the cost of water, California has spent decades wasting this valuable resource. Even in the face of an extraordinary drought, residents and businesses waste water for non-essential purposes.
One of the ways in which the state wastes water is in its poor management of stormwater. Every year millions of gallons of stormwater, water that could be treated, stored and used, are allowed to drain uselessly into the Pacific. The Los Angeles River (really, a flood control channel) is one of the most obvious examples. Fortunately, the city of Los Angeles has recognized this fact and is working to restore the river to a more natural state.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the Los Angeles River restoration to start soon, much less get done. It has taken over 10 years for the Army Corps of Engineers (who essentially owns the river) to come up with the possible alternatives. Yet, the city and the Army Corps of Engineers can’t agree on which of the alternatives to pursue. The Corps recommended a $400 million project while the city is fighting for the $1 billion alternative. The city wants the most expensive, biggest project? Shocking!
The argument over money is really pointless since there is no money to fight over. There simply is not $300 million available for the city’s preferred alternative (note: the Corps would contribute 30% of the funding for the project). There isn’t $120 million available for the Corps’ preference. There isn’t even a dollar available. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Corps is facing a $38 billion backlog of projects. The backlog includes locks and dams, levee improvements and port dredging – in other words vital and necessary projects to protect lives, property and jobs. And that’s just the authorized projects. It doesn’t include all the hoped-for projects that are competing with the Los Angeles River for attention. The chances that the city is going to get anything for the Los Angeles River anytime soon, much less win a fight with the Corps to get the $1 billion Cadillac project is less than zero.
Like dozens of other waterway and flood control projects across California, the Los Angeles River should not be a federal responsibility anyway. The river crosses no state boundaries – it barely includes two counties. The river drains into a bay surrounded by California. And southern California can hardly claim poverty – some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country are in the city. Where is the national interest? Simply put, there is no national interest. The Los Angeles River as a federal responsibility is an artifact of an earlier era.
The way to move forward and restore the Los Angeles River project, as well as other stormwater projects in the state is to reclaim the river and kick out the federal government. If the city of Los Angeles owned the river, then the city could make the decisions. The city could pursue the Cadillac plan. Restoration could start anywhere the city chooses to start. The plan could be scaled up or scaled down, depending on resources available and the desires of the community. Changes won’t have to slog through the impenetrable federal bureaucracy. With the Corps running the show, the federal government will contribute just 30% of the funds. Is that enough to keep things in neutral indefinitely?
The lack of movement on the Los Angeles River illustrates the perils of over-reliance on federal funding and federal decision-making. Not only are communities at the mercy of the vagaries of the federal budget and the federal bureaucracy, they must adapt to the rigid requirements of the federal government. Local and state officials are well aware of the laundry list of non-germane requirements tacked on by current and past Presidents and Congresses to satisfy various constituencies and pressure groups. It’s the cheapest way to help oneself politically: pass a law to help a favored interest group but put the cost on local government. In the case of the Corps of Engineers, one can overlay a large, insular bureaucracy dedicated to doing things its own way.
Given the pressures on the federal budget and the competitiveness for funding, it may well be time for states and local communities to reclaim projects and policies from the federal government rather than waiting for a lottery ticket to hit.