Stormwater tax drowns voters

Stormwater tax drowns voters

East Jordan Iron WorksCalifornia is embarking on a program of capturing storm water from flood control channels for urban landscaping at high costs.  And stormwater capture projects won’t require voter approval under Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, because courts have ruled stormwater recapture is not a tax on top of basic water service.

Prior to 2014, there was no taxing authority and no legal way for county flood control agencies in California to capture urban stormwater and reuse it for irrigating landscaping along highways, public parks, public golf courses, greenbelts, wetlands and cemeteries.

Recent legislation changed that. Assembly Bill 2403, by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, authorized urban flood-control districts to morph into landscaping water districts.

A recent appeals court decision in the case of Griffith v. Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency also redefined sewer stormwater as non-potable water that could be re-used for urban landscaping.

And the proposed $7 billion water bond, Proposition 1 on the November ballot, provides $200 million in funding for stormwater capture projects on a matching-fund basis.

But is cost no object at all in finding new sources of water that in the past were considered uneconomic to develop?  And where will flood-control districts be able to find enough land along their concrete-lined urban flood control channels to build storm water capture basins and pumping plants?

Even if land were available or could be condemned by eminent domain, the cost of acquiring such land would be enormous.  And use of eminent domain would be unpopular.

With those points in mind, let’s look at the comparative costs to develop stormwater for urban landscaping uses.

Stormwater costs

A 1995 Florida study estimated the cost to capture raw, non-potable storm water was $23,400 per acre-foot.  An acre-foot of water serves about two households in a wet year and four in a dry year in California. This would equate to a water bill of between $487 to $975 per household per month.

The high cost of producing stormwater for landscape irrigation is also corroborated by the 2011 Water Integrated Resources Plan for the City of Pasadena.  Pasadena reported the following costs for On-Site Stormwater/Urban Runoff, converted from cost per acre-foot to cost per household per monthly water bill (see page 49):

        Raw Stormwater Project Costs Per Household Per Month:

It should be emphasized that the above costs are for raw, untreated water (non-potable water), not drinking water, which would cost much more.

Alternative costs

By comparison, the alternative costs of water are vastly cheaper than reclaiming storm water:

  • Well water from city wells: $2.50 to $5.00 per household per month during drought ($120 per acre-foot);
  • Water diversions and recharge during drought: $4.35 per household per month for water diverted to golf course during drought: $4.35 ($209 per acre-foot) to $16.44 per household per month for diversion to spreading grounds during drought ($674 per acre foot);
  • Conservation: $11.35 to $16.40 per household per month during drought ($545 to $787 per acre-foot);
  • Imported water from Sacramento Delta or Colorado River: $16.90 to $29.25 per household per month during drought ($811 to $1,404 per acre-foot);
  • Recycled water for non-potable water: $23.90 to $24.04 per household per month during drought ($1,147 to $1,154 per acre-foot);
  • Oceanwater desalination: $55.21 per household per month ($2,650 per acre-foot);
  • Graywater (filtering of relatively cleaner waste water from baths, sinks and washing machines, but not toilets): $123.90 per household per month during drought ($5,947 per acre-foot).


Even expensive oceanwater desalination at $55.21 per household per month during drought would be 59 percent lower than the cheapest stormwater reclaiming technology of rain barrels at $136.06 per household per month during drought.  It also should be noted that the costs per household per month shown above are double during wet years, when there is no conservation.

Reclaiming stormwater for watering public landscapes (freeways, public parks, etc.) is a very pricey alternative that arguably should have been put to a vote of the electorate in each county flood-control district.  Unfortunately, with the help of the courts and both political parties in California that voted for AB2403, the rights of voters to check government bureaucratic expansion during the crisis of a drought has been usurped.

As has detailed, water subsidies by taxpayers for California farmers never existed and crop subsidies are ancient history with the globalization of agricultural markets.

Bottom line: funding for stormwater reclamation projects in Proposition 1 on the November 4 ballot will just contribute to economic waste.

Stormwater chart

Data Source: City of Pasadena Water Integrated Resource Plan 2011


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  1. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 22 October, 2014, 10:43

    “Even expensive oceanwater desalination at $55.21 per household per month during drought would be 59 percent lower than the cheapest stormwater reclaiming technology of rain barrels at $136.06 per household per month during drought. – See more at:

    Pretty obvious choice here and this has been knowledge for as long as I have been here.

    Reply this comment
  2. Roger Mann
    Roger Mann 28 October, 2014, 13:19

    I’m an economist and I’ve worked on some stormwater projects in California. Probably, most existing stormwater capture is for groundwater recharge, not landscape irrigation. In some places there are existing channels, basins (such as old gravel pits) and other facilities that can be used to recharge stormwater at a cost much less than the cost of rain barrels. It’s also important that stormwater capture can either reduce the damage caused by stormwater entering coastal waters, or the costs required to treat that stormwater. No guarantee that any agency will spend funds wisely, but there are opportunities to save money and water with stormwater capture.

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  3. Roger Mann
    Roger Mann 29 October, 2014, 10:40

    I can’t see where or how AB2403 would mandate that stormwater must be used for public landscaping. Could you point me to that language in AB2403, or tell me how you infer that stormwater must be used for public landscaping?

    Reply this comment
    • Wayne Lusvardi
      Wayne Lusvardi 29 October, 2014, 14:18

      Good question.

      Let me reply by saying did anything in the Proposition that authorized funding for California’s High Speed Rail Project allow what policy makers are now doing with that program?

      Here is a law article that explains the intent of AB 2403:

      Stormwater Management Services That Provide a Water Supply Source May Be Funded With Water Service- New Legislation Defines Water for Purposes of Proposition 218 to Include Water from Any Source


      EXCERPT: In adopting AB 2403, the Legislature made specific findings that the legislation is declaratory of existing law, which would include the decisions in Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Griffith. It further declared that the legislation is in furtherance of the policy contained in California Constitution article X, section 2, and the policy that the use of potable domestic water for nonpotable uses, including, but not limited to, cemeteries, golf courses, parks, highway landscaped areas and industrial and irrigation uses, is a waste or an unreasonable use of the water within the meaning of article X, section 2 if recycled water is available.

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