Delivering his inaugural address on the City Hall lawn in 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa challenged Angelenos to turn Los Angeles into “… the greenest big city in America.”
Eight years later, it is only fitting that we ask ourselves how close Mayor Villaraigosa has come to realizing this lofty aspiration, and, just as importantly, what the next mayor must do to fulfill it.
I served in the first term of the Villaraigosa administration as general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and have firsthand knowledge of the environmental ambitions and accomplishments of the administration.
Although it is clear that there is work for the next administration to perform, it is also indisputable that the environmental progress we have made as a city over the last eight years has been nothing short of remarkable.
However, these noteworthy achievements have gone largely unheralded. Perhaps this is because people do not immediately sense gains such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, air-quality improvements, green construction, public transportation projects or the development of local water resources, whereas potholes, traffic jams and the city’s fiscal deficits are more tangible, visible issues that overshadow the positive news on sustainability. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the city’s environmental victories have been relegated to the back pages. But this does not make them any less real or any less worthy of celebration.
This article focuses on five areas: energy and climate change, water, air, green buildings and transportation.
1. Energy and Climate Change
The Villaraigosa administration can justifiably claim to have made substantial headway in addressing climate change and energy issues.
In 2007, Villaraigosa issued the GreenLA Action Plan, calling for emissions to be reduced 35 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. Los Angeles is on track to meet this objective. Further, LADWP has already reduced its emissions 21 percent below 1990 levels — far ahead of AB 32 mandates.
Climate change can have serious impacts for Los Angeles. Rising sea levels could threaten coastal areas; hotter, smoggier days are predicted; droughts and fire events are likely to be more prolonged; and water supplies more constrained. The mayor’s recent AdaptLA climate change plan is intended to prepare for the changes that are coming our way. This is a crucial step in adapting to a new reality.
In charting a more environmentally sensitive direction for the city, LADWP is a central player. The Villaraigosa era has seen transformative changes at LADWP, especially during the first term. Examples include the unprecedented four-fold expansion of renewable energy resources leading to the attainment of the 20 percent level in 2010; the record-breaking 19-fold increase in savings from energy efficiency programs; the completion of Pine Tree Wind Farm, the nation’s then-largest municipally owned wind farm; the achievement of steep declines in water consumption levels; and the 2008 Solar Energy Plan, which was the progenitor of the recently adopted landmark Feed-in Tariff Program.
Some critics will complain that, at the start of his second term, the mayor planned that Los Angeles would be coal-free by 2020 and that its renewables portfolio would reach 40 percent by 2020. However, this criticism ignores the fact that LADWP’s renewables were at just 4 percent, and coal accounted for nearly 50 percent of our power consumption, when the mayor took office. Today, LADWP is on track to meet the 33 percent renewables level by 2020 and has announced that it will eliminate coal well in advance of legal deadlines. Given the historical context, the administration and LADWP merit some recognition, although, clearly, the next administration must continue the effort to accelerate the retirement of coal and to expand energy efficiency, renewable energy and distributed energy programs, while ensuring a prudent balance between renewable resources and natural gas.
During the last eight years, Los Angeles has cut water consumption by 17 percent, and our per capita use is the lowest of any big city in the United States. This is a phenomenal accomplishment by any standard.
In 2008, the mayor promulgated the Los Angeles Water Supply Action Plan, formulated by LADWP. This much-lauded document constituted, in effect, Los Angeles’ declaration of independence from imported water. Recognizing that 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away and that its cost will rise inexorably, the Water Supply Plan called for the development of indigenous resources: conservation, wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation, underground storage.
This plan has been reiterated both in LADWP’s Urban Water Management Plan and in a recent adoption of principles by the LADWP commission that calls for 37 percent of Los Angeles’ water to come from local sources by 2035. These pronouncements are welcome improvements over the “ignorance is bliss” attitudes of the past. Further, in addition to the wins in conservation, incremental progress has been made especially with respect to wastewater recycling and rainfall capture. The work of LADWP and the Bureau of Sanitation (BOS) in this regard should be commended.
However, some would argue that a target of 37 percent 23 years from now is not aggressive enough. UCLA’s recent Vision 2021 L.A. study (Vision 2021) calls for the more ambitious objective of 32 percent by 2021. Certainly, both LADWP and BOS have the talent to expedite matters and would agree that certain actions (e.g., the clean-up of the San Fernando Valley groundwater basin) are urgent. However, much will depend on the ability of the next administration to garner the political will and secure the funds necessary to move forward.
Decades of untiring work by many people have yielded significant improvements in our air quality, although we still remain one of the most polluted U.S. cities for ozone smog and particulate pollution. Still the Villaraigosa administration can fairly claim credit for contributing to enhancements in our air quality. This effort is most clearly evident at the port, where air emissions have been cut by more than half. This is due, in large measure, to the mayor’s San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan and its various components, such as the Clean Trucks Program. The port has also made considerable progress in cleaning the water there, although soil contamination continues to bedevil port officials. Again, it will be left to the next administration to fully implement the Clean Air Action Plan and to pursue a zero-emission target for the port.
4. Green Buildings
Over the last eight years, Los Angeles has emerged as a national leader in this area. Vision 2021 reports that the square footage of municipal buildings certified to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards jumped from 9,000 in 2004 to almost 1.8 million in 2010.
In 2008, Los Angeles established the Green Building Program, requiring that most structures larger than 50,000 square feet be built to LEED standards. In 2011, Los Angeles took the leap of introducing new requirements, which incorporated and surpassed the California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen). In addition to the CALGreen mandates on water and energy efficiency measures for certain new buildings, the L.A. County Green Building Program covers not only new projects, but all alterations and additions over $200,000 in valuation, and requires “solar ready” roofs and “electric vehicle ready” features. The Department of Building and Safety (DBS) is to be complimented for its work in this regard.
In 2011, Los Angeles also enacted the Low Impact Development Ordinance, compelling new and redevelopment projects to incorporate rainfall capture designs, thus helping to abate Los Angeles’ urban run-off problem, while augmenting its water supply.
The water fixtures ordinance of 2009 (estimated to save a billion gallons of water over the next 20 years) is worthy of mention as the joint project of LADWP and DBS.
The Brookings Institution recently acknowledged Villaraigosa and the team that produced Measure R and obtained the low-interest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan from Congress to fund transportation projects, recognizing this endeavor as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Economic Development Initiatives.
Today, more transit and highway projects are opening, under construction, or are in the planning stages, than at any time in the history of Los Angeles County.
In addition, 100 percent of MTA buses have been converted to alternative fuels, and Los Angeles now boasts the largest alternative-fuel trash and street sweeper fleet in the United States. Further, in 2013, Los Angeles is set to become the first large U.S. city to synchronize all signalized intersections. Bus and rail services have increased, and CicLAvia events, which temporarily close streets to car traffic, have proven popular. The next administration must continue to pursue policies to dissuade single-passenger vehicle trips.
The gains of the last eight years in the five areas covered above have been concrete and far reaching and merit recognition. Perhaps we cannot yet claim to be the “… greenest big city in America” in every sphere of endeavor, but we are entitled to that distinction in many ways.
Still, much will depend in the commitment of the next mayor to build on these advances. The next administration must push forward to catalyze the transformation of our energy profile, reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, develop local water resources, cut air pollution and bring public transportation projects to fruition.
As the runoff campaign for mayor enters its final stages, let’s pay close attention to how the two candidates address these specific issues. Despite the solid progress we’ve made over the last eight years, the future of Los Angeles’ fragile environment will depend on their answers and their actions.
David Nahai is an attorney and consultant specializing in real estate, energy and water matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Board.