Kamala Harris visits LA stormwater project in the wake of record rains

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Vice President Kamala Harris joined state and local leaders Friday at a Los Angeles County site to raise groundwater levels, where they praised ongoing efforts to improve drought resilience in California and neighboring states.

Harris’s visit came after a series of storms that ravaged the state for weeks, causing deaths, flooding and extensive damage, as well as record rainfall, needed in the water-scarce West.

California’s climate whiplash — from years of severe drought to torrential rain — has renewed conversations about how to better prepare for extreme weather events, especially by using all available water resources. Much of the rainwater from the heavy rainfall has already drained into the Pacific Ocean, sparking calls to change the way the state collects and uses rainwater.

In Los Angeles County’s Sun Valley, Harris on Friday praised the project at the Tujunga Spreading Grounds, which aims to increase the amount of stormwater and runoff that can be collected by massive earthen bowls and replenish groundwater.

“I am pleased to be here to highlight the work that is happening in this facility and in California as an example of what can and should be done in our country and around the world,” said Harris.

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She pointed to the $12 billion in federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act allocated to projects across the West aimed at improving drought resilience.

Harris has repeatedly advocated for water-focused projects, especially in and around her home state.

The Vice President was joined on the dispersal site by U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.); Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-Pacoima); Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior; Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary of Natural Resources; and other local and national environmental leaders.

Harris’ trip comes the day after President Biden visited California’s Central Coast, where he assessed some of the worst damage from the storms and pledged continued federal support for the state’s recovery efforts. Damage could be up to $1 billion. Across the state, the storms that began December 26 and lasted through mid-January caused major flooding, massive power outages and more than 500 mudslides and resulted in at least 22 deaths.

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The president’s visit followed weeks of support for California from federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, after he issued a state emergency declaration. Biden reiterated promises of federal aid issued through a separate declaration of major disaster in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz counties.

Although Southern California outperformed the northern and central regions of the state during the storms, it experienced significant rainfall, causing flooding, mudslides, at least one massive sinkhole, and leading to multiple rescues.

But the storms also improved drought conditions across the state — with many areas experiencing record rainfall — though experts warn California is far from done with years of drought.

Most of the state is still in a moderate drought, and 40% are still considered a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The state has spent billions in recent years on water supply projects, such as Tujunga Spreading Grounds, aimed at increasing groundwater recharge, stormwater harvesting and reservoir storage. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week he had proposed $202 million for flood protection and $125 million for drought-related measures to be included in next year’s budget.

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“California is not waiting to act — we are moving aggressively to modernize the way we collect and store water to future-proof our state against more extreme cycles of wet and dry,” Newsom said in a statement. “We are accelerating projects across the state to maximize above and below ground stormwater collection and storage during times like these, reshaping our water systems for the 21st century and beyond.”

Harris has returned to her home state many times during her tenure as vice president, selecting several California cities as locations to make White House policy announcements, advocate for state issues, and support local initiatives.

Times staff writers Hayley Smith and Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

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