Policymakers, experts, others tackle issues at North Santa Monica Bay State of the Watershed discussion

The Las Virgenes Reservoir, shown here, is a big part of the Pure Water Project Las Virgenes-Triunfo, which was discussed at the State of the Watershed meeting on April 25. Contributed Photo

April 25 meeting hosted by City of Malibu has attendees update each other on water management efforts

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

The City of Malibu on April 25 hosted the North Santa Monica Bay State of the Watershed, an impressive meeting coordinated by Melina Watts, the watershed coordinator for Safe, Clean Water LA. 

Attendees at the large gathering included various water experts and policy officials; city engineers; water quality professionals; watershed coordinators; state, county, and municipal elected officials; and public policy professionals who administer various programs that address water policy and representative from public works departments in Los Angeles County, Malibu, Calabasas City, Westlake Village, Hidden Hills, and Agoura Hills.  

The gathering’s central purpose was for the attendees to inform one another of their efforts by providing status updates concerning the many water policy issues and programs that cover the vast area encompassed within the North Santa Monica Bay Watershed.  

The North Santa Monica Bay State of the Watershed 2024 is an event for the community showcasing what our local cities and agencies are doing to improve local water quality, create local water supply opportunities and work to sustain our local ecosystems,” Watts explained as the meeting began. “The event is for the community and showcases what our local cities and agencies are doing to improve local water quality, to create local water supply opportunities and to work to sustain our local ecosystems.” 

Malibu Mayor Steve Uhring welcomed attendees and provided some geographic and demographic context with regard to the many watersheds and sub-watersheds encompassed in the aggregate North Santa Monica Watershed.

“At 109 square miles, the Malibu Creek Watershed is one of the largest discrete watersheds draining into Santa Monica Bay,” Uhring said. “Malibu Creek and its tributaries reach out into Ventura County and then wind their way through the Santa Monica Mountains and neighborhoods until they eventually reach Santa Monica Bay.”

Uhring emphasized, “This is not a solitary journey. On this trip the Malibu watershed touches more than 90,000 human residents in five cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County and it supports countless plant and animal species, many of whom are unfortunately considered endangered or threatened.” 

Meeting launches with a culturally appropriate land acknowledgment

While much of the watershed event focused on hydrology; geology and other sciences; data analytics; policy matters; and grants applications and administration, the gathering began with attendees recognizing the cultures that first inhabited the North Santa Monica Bay Watershed.

Agoura Hills City Councilmember Jeremy Wolf set the respectful tone of the meeting by delivering a “land acknowledgement.”

“The North Santa Monica Bay Watershed recognizes that we occupy land originally and still inhabited and cared for by the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash peoples,” Wolf said. “We honor and pay respect to their elders and descendants — past, present and emerging — as they continue their stewardship of these lands and waters.

“We acknowledge that colonization resulted in land seizure, disease, subjugation, slavery, relocation, broken promises, genocide, and multigenerational trauma. This acknowledgment demonstrates our responsibility and commitment to truth, healing, and reconciliation and to elevating the stories, culture, and community of the original inhabitants of Los Angeles County, Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Pausing, Wolf finished by reverently stating, “We are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on these ancestral lands and we are dedicated to growing and sustaining relationships with native peoples.”

Municipal water program reports and an explanation of a Pure Water Project

Each of the five participating cities provided a water quality report. Environmental Programs Manager Tracey Rossine discussed Malibu’s watershed management and water quality programs, stating that the city’s current environmental program includes focusing on water conservation and pollution prevention.

Rosinne addressed the city’s operation and maintenance of both the Civic Center and Paradise Cove stormwater treatment facilities and provided details germane to Malibu safe clean water funding. She also noted that the city provides overseeing agencies with compliance reporting, as mandated by Safe Ocean Water LA and Wastewater Treatment and Watershed Management programs. 

Further, the city provides relevant agencies with detailed calculations of total daily maximum amounts of various pollutants in Malibu Creek and the Santa Monica Bay and provides compliance data regarding the city’s California Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. Such permits are issued to municipalities so they can control stormwater discharges from their systems, thereby preventing untreated stormwater from entering natural water bodies such as Malibu Creek and the Santa Monica Bay.

Next, participants discussed the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s efforts focusing on water supply, which affects some residents in Malibu and nearby unincorporated Los Angeles County areas.  

The Pure Water Project Las Virgenes-Triunfo Joint Powers Authority was established between the districts to treat wastewater within the Malibu Creek Watershed. 

“The Pure Water Project envisions an advanced water purification plant at 30800 Agoura Road in Agoura Hills that will convert the district’s wastewater into drinking water, and the plant will treat effluent from the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility for potable reuse,” said Oliver Slosser, LVMWD’s project engineer, who noted that the project includes the construction of a filtration plant in Westlake Village, the first of its kind in Los Angeles County. “The plant will purify 6 million gallons of water per day for the 175-square-mile water district served by the combined LVMWD and the Triunfo District.” 

Slosser added that the project includes constructing 20 miles of pipeline and the plant will utilize reverse osmosis to purify water. 

“Once the water is purified at the new Agoura Road Plant, it will be blended for six months with State Water project supply already inside the Westlake Village Las Virgenes Reservoir,” Slosser explained. “The water will then be treated a third time at the Westlake Filtration Plant near the reservoir and will be distributed throughout the joint powers service area.”

Showing a conceptual rendering, Slosser noted that the project is in the pre-design phase. Once the design is completed, final construction cost estimates will be considered by the JPA before construction commences. Construction is set to start in 2025, with a target construction completion in 2030. 

The project will eventually supply up to 30 percent of the drinking water for the region. Where does water for LVMWD’s customers come from now? LVMWD must import 100 percent of its drinking water because there are no native supplies to draw from within the district’s 122-square mile service area. LVMWD purchases its water from Metropolitan Water Districts of Southern California, the Southland’s regional water wholesaler. 

Readers may also wonder where the funding comes from for the Pure Water Drinking effort, which involves a large infrastructure project that is projected to cost $364 million. As with many enormous water quality projects, several levels of government will help to fund the project, which includes building the infrastructure needed to eliminate the need to discharge any unused recycled water to Malibu Creek, protect critical habitats, maximize beneficial uses of recycled water, enhance water supply reliability, and replenish the Las Virgenes Reservoir.

In this instance, part of the funding is federally sourced through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Specifically, the invited WIFIA loan amount for the project is $184 million. LVMWD has also secured $10.2 million in grants and public funding from various levels of government will supply the rest of the monies needed. 

For more information about the Pure Water Project Las Virgenes-Triunfo, visit: ourpurewater.com.

The view from Sacramento: Budget deficit may compromise climate bonds

The event also featured Sen. Ben Allen, who represents Malibu and other Santa Monica Bay communities in Los Angeles County.  Allen chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and co-chairs the California Legislative Environmental Caucus. Allen noted that water resources are precious to those within the Santa Monica Bay Watershed. 

“I grew up loving and hiking the Santa Monica Mountains,” he said. “People here really — really — care about water quality. Historically, there were some needed revisions concerning how we govern over and administer water rights in this area and statewide. Specifically, there is a massive delta between the amount of water we have versus the number of historical water rights in the state.” 

Allen explained that in October 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation authored by Allen aimed at strengthening California’s antiquated water rights system so that the State Water Resources Control Board can now verify the validity and scope of claims to senior water rights in the state. The board can now verify the bases of such rights, request relevant information from claimants asserting senior rights, and enforce against illegal diversions where appropriate. Prior to that law passing, because senior water rights preceded the establishment of California’s current system, they were exempt from the same level of oversight given to junior rights, those that are subject to the Water Board’s permitting requirements.

Allen, the lead author of SB 867, noted that proposed measure, which may be on the ballot in November, would provide a state general obligation bond to address California’s need to protect communities and natural resources from the impacts of climate change on the state’s natural resources, including addressing drought, flooding, sea-level rise, and extreme heat.

The sticky widget with regard to that proposal concerns the state’s projected budget deficit — estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s office at $73 billion — and the state’s overall economy’s limiting its capacity to take out bonds. 

Lawmakers have not yet agreed on how big a bond act may be and such negotiations may be impacted by Newsom’s May revision of the state budget. The legislature has until June 27 to put a bond on the November ballot.

The day-long State of the Santa Monica Bay Watershed also featured speakers from National Parks, State Parks, and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, who discussed the state of our local ecosystems and various agencies’ water and resource conservation partnerships in the Santa Monica Mountains.

State of the Malibu Lagoon

The event ended with a presentation by keynote speaker Dr. Christine Whitcraft, director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at California State University, Long Beach. She is a leading scientist participating in the estuary marine protected area monitoring program that is funded by the Ocean Protected Council. 

An expert in estuarine research, Whitcraft noted that 23 of the state’s 124 marine protected areas are estuarine MPAs, including Malibu Lagoon. She specifically discussed the condition of  the Malibu Lagoon, noting that the lagoon monitoring program that she oversees monitors 15 estuarine lagoons statewide, 10 MPAs (including Malibu Lagoon) and five non-MPAs. 

“One of the things that we scientists focus on in monitoring estuarine marine protected areas is to collect functions data,” Whitcraft said. “Malibu Lagoon is a small lagoon that opens and closes seasonally and we are assessing what happens when the lagoon’s mouth opens and closes — we evaluate how the water moves over different ecosystems and we measure sediment accretion.” 

As she spoke, Whitcraft displayed a picture of Malibu Lagoon with heavy floating algae at a time of lagoon closure and she noted the algae was attributable to nutrients coming into the watershed caused by the presence of fish and birds. 

Explaining the exhaustive data that she and her team have collected, Whitcraft displayed a scatter graph setting forth data points over significant time periods concerning the sampled lagoons. She noted that the study’s data sets are derived utilizing a well-developed function-based assessment framework utilizing standard monitoring protocols, data structures and quality control measures, and that the team employs its framework to fill data gaps.  

Whitcraft and her team’s peer-reviewed data sets and assessments are available to scientists, policymakers, elected officials and readers alike. The data can assist in lagoon stressor management and developing protocols to assist lagoon resilience to climate change, Whitcraft noted. The data is publicly available at empa/sccwrp.org.