Unpaid Utility Bills Are Disproportionately Piling Up in L.A. Study shows 25-30% of Angelenos have unpaid energy and water bills, with debts unevenly impacting people of color

A new report authored by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and Center for Neighborhood Knowledge measures the extent of utility debt accumulation among customers served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 

Disparities in unpaid bills predate COVID-19 but have deepened since the pandemic’s outbreak. Using data from a November 2020 California State Water Resources Control Board survey, the researchers found one-quarter to one-third of all Los Angeles households faced financial difficulties paying for their utilities. 

“We didn’t expect the magnitude to be this big,” said Silvia R. González, co-author of the study and a senior researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “For many families, this means choosing between keeping their lights on or skipping meals or medical treatment.”

The debt burden is unevenly distributed across Los Angeles — 64% of the population in severely affected neighborhoods are Latino. Black communities also face disproportionate debt, and racial disparities persist even after accounting for socioeconomic characteristics. Further, the study found that lower-income neighborhoods, residents with limited English proficiency and renters face unequal debt burdens. 

Early on in the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended water and energy utility shut-offs, which has provided continued utility access for households in California. But accumulating debt has not been forgiven, and this crisis will need to be resolved once the suspension is lifted. 

Researchers said they hope to guide policymakers and utility operators in formulating targeted debt-relief programs, and calls for financial support from COVID-19-related aid to ensure that vulnerable Angelenos will still have access to water and energy after the pandemic.  

“We need an equitable relief plan,” González said. “These communities are already historically underserved areas and they’ve been left behind more broadly during the pandemic. These debts will be impossible for many families to repay.”

Report Sets Path Toward Clean Drinking Water for all Californians Study co-authored by UCLA Luskin researchers finds hundreds of public water systems are out of compliance

By Michelle Einstein

California was the first U.S. state to legally recognize access to safe, clean and affordable water as a human right. But substantial parts of the state lack access to drinking water that meets those criteria.

A new study (PDF) published by the California State Water Board and supported by UCLA research identifies a risk for failure among a significant portion of the state’s small and medium-sized public water systems. The report is the first comprehensive analysis of how clean water is provided in California, and it estimates how much it would actually cost to deliver safe water to every resident.

The research was a collaboration between the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, the water board’s Needs Analysis Unit, Corona Environmental Consulting, Sacramento State University’s Office of Water Programs, the Pacific Institute and the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center.

Of the 2,779 public water systems evaluated in the study, nearly half are at some risk of failing to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water. To measure the health of water systems, the researchers assessed each water system using 19 indicators for water quality, accessibility, affordability and operational capacity.

Based on those assessments, each system received an overall rating indicating how likely it would be to fail — from “not at risk” at the top end of the scale, to “potentially at risk” and “at risk” for the systems with the lowest scores. The researchers found 25% of water systems to be “at risk,” while an additional 23% are “potentially at risk.”

The study also identified locations where groundwater quality is out of compliance with the state’s safe water drinking standards. About one-third of domestic wells and one-half of state small water systems were found to be at a high risk for containing contaminants like nitrate and arsenic.

“Illuminating the extent of at-risk water systems is an important step,” said Gregory Pierce, the study’s principal investigator and an associate director at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “By more fully understanding the issues, we can move to more resilient and accessible water sources.”

The study noted that water quality and infrastructure issues vary substantially across the state. For instance, Kings County, in central California, has the highest proportion of at-risk public water systems (75%), while San Francisco County and Modoc County in the northern part of the state have zero at-risk systems.

The research incorporated a comprehensive evaluation of thousands of water systems and hundreds of thousands of wells, as well as input from water managers, environmental nonprofits and advocacy groups.

Among the other findings:

Holistic solutions can help.

  • In the short term, bottled water and home filtration systems can be used to help communities that need clean drinking water immediately. The researchers estimate that those short-term interventions would cost between $500 million and $1.6 billion over the next five to nine years.
  • Long-term solutions include enhancing water treatment; consolidating small, underperforming water systems; and providing experts to advise communities on how to improve those systems. The study estimates a wide range of total costs for those solutions, depending on which actions local systems adopt, but the midpoint estimate is about $5.7 billion.

More funding will be needed.

  • The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which was established in 2019 to help bring adequate drinking water to disadvantaged communities, already provides critical financial support. But for all California communities to have reliably safe drinking water, more financial resources are likely needed.
  • Additional funding could come from a variety of sources, including the state legislature, the governor’s office and federal agencies.

The analysis suggests prioritizing funding for water systems that are currently most at risk and that are located in underserved communities. It also sets the stage for a deeper investigation of how the state can ensure safe, clean and affordable water for all — an especially salient issue as Congress is considering a federal infrastructure bill that would, in part, address the systems that deliver drinking water throughout the U.S.

“I’m optimistic that as a nation, we’re talking about upgrading our pipes and cleaning up our contaminated drinking water,” said Peter Roquemore, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “Infrastructure might not always be glamorous, but the impacts of fixing our water systems would be huge.”

Government Leaders, Scholars Discuss Policy Solutions During UCLA Luskin Summit Congresswoman Karen Bass opens the inaugural convening of a research-informed, cross-sector conference about issues facing the region

By Les Dunseith

Elected officials, scholars, civic leaders, and difference-makers in the nonprofit and philanthropic spheres came together April 24 to learn the results of the annual Quality of Life Index and discuss policy issues during a half-day conference put together by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Congresswoman Karen Bass provided the morning’s keynote address for “Luskin Summit 2019: Livable L.A.,” an event that also kicked off the 25th anniversary celebration at the Luskin School.

Bass opened the conference by jokingly telling more than 300 people in attendance at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center that she “wanted to tell you about what we are doing in D.C. because, if you watch some TV news, you have no idea what we are doing in D.C.”

Bass has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011. She said that “Democrats and Republicans actually do work together” in the nation’s capital.

“We don’t hate each other,” Bass said, smiling broadly. “Our accomplishments unfortunately don’t sustain media attention. So you might hear that we passed legislation on something like gun control … and then somebody tweets, and that’s all you hear about for the next several hours.”

The congresswoman’s remarks set a cooperative tone for the inaugural Luskin Summit, which focused on finding solutions through research and policy change. The conference emphasized a Los Angeles perspective during breakout sessions moderated by UCLA faculty members that focused on issues such as public mobility, climate change, housing and criminal justice.

Providing a framework for those discussions was the unveiling of the fourth Quality of Life Index, a project at UCLA Luskin that is supported by The California Endowment under the direction of longtime Los Angeles political stalwart Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative. The survey asks county residents to rate their quality of life in a range of categories and to answer questions about important issues facing them and the region.

“The cost of living, and particularly the cost of housing, is the single biggest drag on the rating that residents ultimately give to their quality of life in Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky told Luskin Summit attendees. “The unmistakable takeaway from this project continues to be the crippling impact of the cost of living in Los Angeles County, punctuated by the extraordinary cost of housing.”

The housing affordability crisis was echoed throughout the event and in the days that followed as Yaroslavsky explained details of the survey in coverage by news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, local radio news programs, and broadcast television reports by the local affiliates for NBC and ABC.

The coverage by KABC (also known as ABC7 Los Angeles) included segments on daily news broadcasts and a follow-up discussion with Yaroslavsky scheduled to air May 26 on the station’s weekly public affairs program, “Eyewitness Newsmakers.” That program is hosted by Adrienne Alpert, a general assignment reporter at ABC7 who served as the moderator for the Luskin Summit.

Alpert also hosted a panel discussion that closed the conference, during which mayors of four cities in Los Angeles County — Emily Gabel-Luddy of Burbank, Thomas Small of Culver City, James Butts of Inglewood and Tim Sandoval of Pomona — spoke frankly about the challenges their cities face in dealing with issues such as the rising cost of housing and its potential to lead to displacement of low-income residents.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a former colleague of Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles City Council, was also in attendance at the conference. Padilla engaged in a lively exchange about election security and voter registration efforts with UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura during a lunch meeting of panelists, faculty members and sponsors that took place immediately after the summit.

Segura also provided remarks during the morning session, introducing Bass and giving attendees a preview of the day to follow.

“Today you will hear from a series of dedicated public officials who understand that as great as our nation is, it can be better,” Segura said. “And they are taking action to make our country and our city more effective, more innovative, more fair and more inclusive.”

During her remarks, Bass offered her perspective on the recently released investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“One thing that is a responsibility by the Constitution for Congress — we are supposed to provide oversight and investigation of the administration,” Bass said. “Most of the time it’s not that controversial, and you don’t really hear about it. But it’s made to be super-controversial now because we are in a hyper-partisan situation.”

The bitter partisanship prevalent in Washington today does have a positive aspect, she said, in that Americans seem to be paying closer attention to government and political issues.

“I am hoping that this trauma that we have collectively gone through will lead to a change in our American culture,” Bass said, “because as a culture we tend not to be involved politically.”

Bass said that more people seem to have a deeper understanding of political actions related to “immigration, the Muslim ban, the environment — all the kind of negative things that this administration has done,” said Bass, a Democrat who has been critical of many Trump administration policies. “I think he has sparked a new level of awareness and involvement, where we are working across our silos. I think, ultimately, we can take advantage of this period and bring about transformative change.”

The idea of initiating transformative change was a popular notion among many attendees at the Luskin Summit, as was the focus on making Los Angeles a more livable place.

“I can’t think of a better topic than how to make our city more livable and touch on all of these different aspects of life and the built environment and our environment in Los Angeles,” said Nurit Katz MPP/MBA ’08, the chief sustainability officer at UCLA.

Wendy Greuel BA ’83 is a former Los Angeles city controller and past president of the Los Angeles City Council. She noted that the research presented during the Luskin Summit was timely and focused “on issues that matter to Los Angeles, but also to this country and this world.”

Greuel served as the chair of the UCLA Luskin Advisory Board committee that helped plan the Luskin Summit. “I think that UCLA Luskin is at the forefront of really focusing on issues that matter and being able to give us real-life solutions and address the challenges,” she said.

Another UCLA Luskin Advisory Board member is Stephen Cheung BA ’00 MSW ’07, who is president of the World Trade Center Los Angeles and executive vice president at the L.A. County Economic Development Corporation.

“I think anything that has to do with sustainability and the growth of Los Angeles as a whole is very important to the economic vitality of this region,” Cheung said as the event got underway. “So this summit and all the information that’s going to be provided will really set a roadmap in terms of what we need to do, addressing public policies in terms of creating new opportunities for our companies here.”

Jackie Guevarra, executive director of the Quality and Productivity Commission of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, said she attended the Luskin Summit because of her interest in the issues under discussion, including housing affordability.

“Homelessness is a big issue that L.A. County is tackling right now,” Guevarra said. “That is an issue that touches all of us. … The more that we have that conversation, the more people we can get to the same way of thinking about how to address the need — so that maybe we can all say, ‘Yes, we need affordable housing, and it’s OK for it to be here in my community.’”

Misch Anderson is a community activist with the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, a volunteer organization created in 2013 after a series of fatal crashes involving cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

“I was feeling like my activism put me in touch with such a small, kind of silo-ized community mindset, and I really want to break out of that and connect with people on a larger level,” said Anderson about her reason for attending the summit. “I just wanted to get some inspiration.”

Her takeaway from the summit?

“The idea that we need cultural change, essentially. I think the realities of globalism should be forcing us as individuals to think more widely, more as a larger group, and not be so xenophobic,” Anderson said. “I keep hearing about cultural change [at the summit] and thinking about what can I do — what can each of us do.”

Among the UCLA students in attendance was Tam Guy, a second-year Urban Planning Ph.D. candidate who is studying equity in the city, which encompasses housing, transportation and environmental design.

“One thing that interested me about this summit in particular is that they’re bringing in people from outside academia to talk about the issues, people who are actually on the ground dealing with policy day-to-day,” Guy noted.

The Luskin Summit drew a large crowd to the UCLA campus, and several hundred people watched a live stream of selected presentations. It drew interest near and far. A prime example was a group seated together near the back of the vast ballroom during the opening session — high school students from New Zealand!

The youths had been traveling up and down the West Coast with Joanna Speed, international coordinator with Crimson Education, a college admissions consulting service that exposes teens to potential careers and educational opportunities abroad. Coincidentally, the group scheduled its campus tour of UCLA for April 24. When they saw that the summit was happening that day, they asked to attend.

“It’s been an incredible experience for them,” Speed said.

Mary Braswell and Stan Paul also contributed to this story. 

View additional photos from the UCLA Luskin Summit

UCLA Luskin Summit 2019: Livable L.A.

Watch videos recorded during the event:

Luskin Forum Online: Who We Are Essays highlight people who make UCLA Luskin a vibrant, thought-provoking and entertaining place to be

[ From the Luskin Forum Online ]

Dean Gary Segura is fond of saying that the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is about human well-being.

“We study ways to make individuals, families, communities and polities function better, for the improvement and quality of lives of all those affected,” Segura told the Class of 2017 at Commencement last June.

Those students, now Luskin alumni, spent 2016-17 working on a variety of projects related to urgent human needs, such as:

  • greenhouse gas reduction
  • interventions with at-risk youth
  • prison population reduction
  • homelessness
  • HIV prevention
  • meningitis epidemic control
  • regulation of new and intrusive technologies
  • safe school environments
  • quality mental health services
  • river restoration
  • access to home ownership
  • responsive governance in the developing world

“I’m reminded every day of how lucky I am and how special it is to be a part of the Luskin School of Public Affairs,” Segura told proud parents and family members at the graduation ceremony.

This issue of Luskin Forum is dedicated to just that: taking pride in how this school makes a difference, and why it’s important to remember the myriad accomplishments of our students, faculty, staff
and alumni.

Our UCLA Luskin mission statement says it perfectly: “At the convergence of the fields of social work, urban planning, and policymaking, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs identifies and develops emerging areas of research and teaching, cultivating leaders and change agents who advance solutions to society’s most pressing problems.”

In the words of Dean Segura: “Do good in the world. Make change.”


We Are Connecting

Like their planning and policy peers at UCLA Luskin, the School’s Master of Social Welfare students are connecting with the community throughout their two-year professional program. First-year MSW students have the opportunity to engage in high-impact internships and placements that begin even before fall classes start.

New Luskin MSW students bring with them a wide range of experience in the community and at social work-related agencies, where they have served as students, employees and volunteers. From the get-go, they immerse themselves in the work of organizations that assist and provide programs for the homeless, the elderly, disabled adults, children with emotional and learning disabilities, and foster youth.

The wide array of student placements includes a downtown women’s shelter, a psychiatric care facility, school and community groups, and other sites that provide services such as law advocacy or assistance with transitional housing, according to Michelle Talley MSW ’98, field education faculty member.

First-year MSW students are placed at various field sites throughout Los Angeles County and in surrounding counties, Talley said. Placements are based on previous experience, prior knowledge of the role of a social worker and other factors.

Their extensive field work also involves community outreach and advocacy. They participate in staff meetings and offer consultation. They engage in research activities and participate in development programs that include training on professional responsibility and reporting mandates.

Both years of the MSW program integrate the School, alumni and the community as integral parts of the educational process for this professional practice-oriented degree, assuring that graduates become high-impact practitioners.

“The goal is to place students at sites that will create opportunities to enhance their growth as a professional social worker,” Talley said.


We Are Protectors

From the streets of Los Angeles to innovative research on social media, UCLA Luskin faculty members like Ian Holloway are gathering data to inform programs and policies that improve the health and well-being of vulnerable communities.

In addition to his position as assistant professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin, Holloway is director of the Southern California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center. There are approximately 5,000 new HIV cases in California each year. Holloway’s ongoing work focuses on HIV prevention and treatment among sexual and gender minority people. “Young gay and bisexual men, especially those from racial and ethnic minority communities, are disproportionately impacted by HIV, and HIV-related comorbidities,” Holloway said.

In 2016-17, Holloway and a group of Luskin students and recent graduates canvassed more than 500 gay and bisexual men to gauge their awareness of a yearlong outbreak of meningitis in Southern California. Holloway and his research group found that less than a third of those interviewed were vaccinated against meningitis despite extensive outreach efforts by the California Department of Public Health.

Holloway’s findings suggested that better vaccination uptake surveillance, tailored education and more sites for immunization throughout Southern California are needed in order to bolster efforts to track meningitis and encourage vaccination among gay and bisexual men.

Other research conducted by Holloway and student assistants includes the LINX LA project, which uses a mobile phone app to encourage treatment engagement among HIV-positive African American young gay and bisexual men through access to legal and social service resources in Los Angeles.

Next up? Using a new and innovative approach, Holloway and a group of tech-savvy UCLA researchers will use data-mining of social networking sites to learn more about drug use and sexual risk behavior. The project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, aims to use social networking data to inform intervention development. “This would include ‘just-in-time’ technology-delivered interventions aimed at preventing negative health outcomes and promoting healthy behaviors,” Holloway explained.


We Are Innovating

Whether it be guiding equitable revitalization of the L.A. River, helping Californians cut down on their electricity use, or advancing a new way to repurpose carbon dioxide into a greener form of concrete, the Luskin Center for Innovation is a trailblazer among UCLA’s many sustainability leaders.

And that’s just for starters.

Since its inception in 2009, the Luskin Center’s research has influenced local, state and national policy. This includes a new rooftop solar program for Los Angeles, the redesign of California’s clean vehicle rebate program, and current efforts to develop a drinking water low-income assistance program in California. Other research informs the state’s world-renowned actions to combat climate change while maximizing local employment, air quality and health benefits.

A think tank housed within the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the center is organized around initiatives that translate world-class research into real-world policy solutions. Current initiatives include advanced transportation, clean energy, climate action, digital technologies, sustainable water and urban greening — all linked by the theme of informing effective and equitable policies.

The center brings together faculty and staff from a variety of academic disciplines across campus to conduct research in partnership with civic leaders who use the knowledge to inform policy and organizational innovations. Civic leaders include policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and business associations. Students at UCLA Luskin have the opportunity to work with the Luskin Center to gain hands-on research experience and work closely with these decision-makers.

Meyer Luskin, the visionary and benefactor behind the Luskin Center, says, “Sustaining the environment is the greatest inheritance one can leave to children, and the most enduring gift to the community and nation.”


We Are Inspiring

Each year, UCLA Luskin students are embedded in internships and research projects offered through all three departments. That’s a given. Not as well known is how the school also creates partnerships that benefit students and the communities in which they work.

Take, for example, the Watts Leadership Institute (WLI). The brainchild of Social Welfare adjunct professor Jorja Leap MSW ’80 and her research partner, Karrah Lompa MSW ’13, the WLI is engaged in a 10-year mission to bring about positive change in a community hungry for leadership coaching.

Leap and Lompa are working with the first cohort of community members, providing guidance on everything from learning how to establish successful nonprofits to applying those skills in their community garden. After several years of training and coaching, the cohort will provide guidance for future leaders in Watts.

At the same time, Leap is using the project as a way to provide community-based educational experiences for Luskin’s Social Welfare students.

“This kind of a public-private partnership, along with the research attached to it — and the building of the Watts community — really represent the best of how all of these different factors can come together,” said Leap, who has been working in Watts since conducting research there when she was a Social Welfare graduate student in the 1970s. “It represents part of UCLA’s continuing and growing commitment to communities like Watts that need our involvement, our engagement, our organizing, our research.”

The WLI has received funding from the California Wellness Foundation and from GRoW @ Annenberg, a philanthropic initiative led by Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, as well as office space and in-kind support from Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino.

“What Watts Leadership did was to help us come together, to put our resources together, and be an example for the rest of the nonprofit and leadership community in Watts,” cohort member Pahola Ybarra said. “It’s been an amazing effort to help us grow, and to help us get out of our own way. It encourages us to reach for as much as we can and do as much as we can in the community.”


We Are Woke

On Nov. 9, 2016, after many felt their world spin out of control, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin decided to create a space for students, faculty and staff to critically analyze the forms of exclusion, including white nationalism, so pervasive throughout the election that had just ended.

Post-election, the Institute, whose tagline is “Organizing knowledge to challenge inequality,” expanded its mission to challenge state-sponsored violence against targeted bodies and communities by immediately issuing a call for Jan. 18, 2017: Teach.Organize.Resist.

The campaign, known as #J18, included universities and colleges across the nation and internationally that organized nearly 100 courses, performances, sit-ins, and lectures to demonstrate that places of teaching and learning would not bear silent witness to oppression and hate. After a day of programming at UCLA, #J18 ended with “From the Frontlines of Justice,” a multi-performance event held in Ackerman Grand Ballroom. Highlights are online at teachorganizeresist.luskin.ucla.edu

Ananya Roy, professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography and the director of the Institute, remarked: “I encourage students to think of their role as scholars and to consider the power of research and knowledge.”

To strengthen the link between scholarship and collective action even further, the Institute launched its first Activist-in-Residence program in 2017. In the words of the inaugural fellow, Funmilola Fagbamila, arts and culture director of Black Lives Matter LA and adjunct professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA, the definition of “woke” doesn’t end at knowledge. “To achieve the ‘woke’ label, you must be willing to analyze the conditions in your community. Lastly, you must act.”

Through academic research, and in alliance with social justice movements, the Institute creates scholarship, art and collective action to tackle divides and dispossessions in global Los Angeles and in cities around the world.

“We do so to insist on the academic freedom to examine regimes of power and structures of intolerance,” Roy explained. “We do so to forge imaginations of abolitionism, civil disobedience and human freedom. We do so, as James Baldwin reminded us, to shake the dungeon and leave behind our chains.”


We Are Global

The impact of the Luskin School resonates far beyond the borders of Los Angeles and California. It’s a brand with international flavor. It’s not unusual to find Luskin students and faculty in Mexico, Uganda, India or Japan.

Luskin’s popular Global Public Affairs program offers students the chance to obtain intellectual and professional preparation to become future experts within the realm of international public affairs.

Each year GPA students travel around the globe, immersing themselves in the culture — and problems — of their host countries, and blogging about it for the GPA website. In the past year, students have lived in Mexico City; Paris; Kampala, Uganda; Bonn, Germany; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Tokyo, among other locales.

The GPA program is led by two members of the Urban Planning faculty. Michael Storper, distinguished professor of regional and international urban planning, is the director of GPA. He’s also a professor of economic sociology at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics. Stephen Commins UP PhD ’88, a lecturer in Urban Planning, is a former senior development specialist at the World Bank and director of policy and planning at World Vision International. UCLA Luskin’s international influence also includes:

  • Urban Planning faculty like Paavo Monkkonen MPP ’05, whose students made multiple visits to Tijuana, Mexico, where they provided guidance to city and government officials about the best ways to deal with a housing crisis.
  • Policy professors like Manisha Shah, associate professor of public policy, who has traveled around the world — to India, Mexico, Tanzania and Indonesia — to conduct research into microeconomics, health and development.
  • Faculty leaders like Donald Shoup and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris who are among the many UCLA Luskin faculty in great demand as speakers at conferences around the world.
  • Our international students — who add a global perspective to the student body and to Luskin educational efforts.

“A focus on problems that cross borders and involve international interdependence, also identifies where international forces affect domestic policies,” Commins said. “Students can learn from comparing experiences of different countries in how they face planning, policy and social welfare challenges and apply the experiences to their own studies and professional practice.”


We Are Problem Solvers

Graduate students at UCLA Luskin don’t wait to step beyond the classroom to address California’s pressing challenges. Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students spend their time on campus deeply immersed in local, state, national and global issues. At the Luskin School, it’s part of the program.

Luskin students log countless hours learning lessons from leading-edge faculty and researchers. Here they seek solutions related to ongoing problems like housing, transportation or sustainability. They look into topics of vital importance to Southern California like electric recharging stations, barriers to bicycling in and around the city, or accessibility to water and food.

“At Luskin, we give students a diverse set of tools (both quantitative and qualitative) that will help guide them through the APP process and ultimately to go out into the real world and conduct policy analysis on issues close to their hearts,” said Manisha Shah, associate professor of public policy and faculty coordinator for the Applied Policy Project program completed by MPP graduates.

Recent work has connected students with county and city offices such as the Mayor of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Regional agencies such as the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) frequently serve as clients. Recent APP projects included healthy food choices for elementary school students and employment opportunities for youths. Students also tackle educational issues right here at UCLA or work with the University of California’s Office of the President.

Many student projects benefit local and regional clients and the communities they serve, but they also reach out to communities far way. A recent planning capstone evaluated the short-term rental market in a Northern California city, for example. And a recent policy project analyzed governance at
the local level in the Ukraine.


We Are Trailblazing

There’s no better place to study how people get around than Southern California — and for the past 25 years, UCLA has been home to one of the country’s preeminent transportation research centers.

The UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS) at UCLA Luskin combines cutting-edge research with meaningful, influential civic engagement to lead to policy results in California and beyond. From the impacts of traffic congestion to fairness around rideshare hailing to the civic consequences of paying for parking, ITS scholars produce work that ties directly to current transportation planning practices and policymaking at the local, state and national levels. ITS is noted for connecting transportation and equity, and for emphasizing the effect of transportation decisions on people’s lives.

“We take our policy mandate seriously,” said Brian Taylor UP PhD ’90, director of ITS and professor of urban planning.

Through close partnership with dozens of outside organizations that include government agencies, private transportation companies, nonprofit foundations and advocacy groups, ITS faculty, staff and students translate the latest knowledge on transportation into proposed real-world policies around movement and growth. ITS’ biannual digital magazine is widely read throughout the transportation community, highlighting important new research in a clear, constructive manner for practitioners.

Luskin students working at ITS collaborate closely with faculty members, receive generous scholarship funding for their own trailblazing projects, and have garnered an inordinate number of prestigious grants and awards over the years. Regular interactive events and publications showcase student findings to the academic community and the public at UCLA and around the country.

The next quarter-century will bring significant changes to how we travel, with daunting societal impacts. As it has since 1992, ITS research and policy action will help guide the way toward solutions.


We Are Family

Attend any gathering at UCLA Luskin and you may feel like you stumbled into someone’s family reunion.

There will be a toddler or two, chasing a balloon or dancing as a faculty, staff or student parent hovers nearby. You’ll notice plenty of happy young faces — graduate students tend to be in their 20s — but look closer, and you’ll see older folks too. Mid-career professionals returning to add a degree. Staff and faculty, some grayed and others not. Perhaps alumni who earned degrees during the days of typewriters or even pencil and paper, not smartphones.

But family is more than differences in age. It’s continuity. Legacy. Progress over time, as one generation blazes a trail and then passes the torch of knowledge along to another to mark its own, slightly different path. It’s every professor who imparts a tidbit of knowledge only to be surprised, and humbled, when a protégé nurtures that information into something new and wonderful and impactful.

A lifetime of learning walks the Public Affairs Building each day — legends who become mentors, colleagues, even friends. Marty Wachs. Joan Ling. Mark Peterson. Michael Dukakis. Ananya Roy. Gerry Laviña. And so many more. People who have done everything in their careers that students could ever dream of doing themselves and yet still seem to care most about what their students learn now that will improve the world tomorrow.

Family provides inspiration. At Luskin, it’s instructors who know how to say, “You can do better,” in a way that makes students understand that, yes, they really can.

Families help those who need it. It’s every person on the Donor Honor Roll whose name is there not because their wealth exceeds their needs but because money is a way to honor someone who once expanded their worldview. Or lifted their spirits. Or answered a question late one night as a deadline loomed.

After 40 years at UCLA Luskin, Donald Shoup knows all about the Luskin family. In 2017, he won another big award, honoring his contributions as an educator. He put it in perspective: “If we have any influence — if there is going to be anything to remember after we are gone — I think it will be the successful careers of our students who will be changing the world for the better.”


Save Every Drop While We Still Can International water expert Brian Richter joins California government officials for a panel at UCLA Luskin that stresses urgent need to conserve in an increasingly drought-plagued world

By Aaron Julian

“Every Californian should think about water the same way they think about electricity — you just don’t waste it.”

This sentiment expressed by Debbie Franco of the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is typical of the conservation advice offered by a panel of water experts during a Feb. 22, 2017, presentation at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Spearheading the discussion was Brian Richter, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Chasing Water.” Richter outlined the historical relationship between humanity and water. He also explained his ideas to formulate a “water market” that would monetarily encourage responsible water usage on the personal, industrial and governmental levels.

“Disruption needs to happen more on the governmental level,” said Richter about the best approach to lessen overuse and foster more cooperation between city, local and state governments regarding an ongoing world water crisis. An example of intergovernmental partnerships is San Diego’s annual $60-million investment to encourage smarter water use by farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District in return for access to a third of the city’s water supply.

The Luskin Center for Innovation’s Greg Pierce led a question and answer session with the panelists regarding water conservation policy. Photo by Les Dunseith

Water is especially important for California governments and residents in light of the historic drought affecting the region. During a question and answer session led by the Luskin Center for Innovation’s Greg Pierce MA U.P. ’11 UP PhD ’15, panelists discussed how to keep momentum toward sustainable water systems despite recent downpours estimated at about 19 total inches of rain — equal to about 27 billion gallons of water.

Franco argued that the solution to the water issue needs to go beyond collaborative government — it has to become a way of life.

“One of the key elements that we are missing in California are folks that understand water,” she said. “We need people to feel like they are water managers in their own home. That’s an important first step toward a thriving and active participation in local government.”

She said such participation helps propel effective action at all levels. Richter added that “77 percent of all Americans have absolutely no idea where their water comes from.”

He noted a core argument of his book, that in order to have a fully active and informed citizenry, the science and policy communities need to fully understand water themselves.

Panelist Liz Crosson from the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office told the large crowd that attended the session that Los Angeles has instituted a Save the Drop campaign in partnership with the mayor’s fund, working to reach a 20 percent reduction from the 103 gallon per day of water usage per capita in the city. Even if successful, that mark is well short of Australia’s average of 50 gallons per day as noted by Richter in his book and lecture.

The city’s plan involves combating water illiteracy in combination with incentives and restrictions on water use. The city has also updated its rate structure to be more compatible with different socioeconomic brackets.

Still, Crosson warned, “Here in L.A., just because it is raining does not mean our water supply is in much better shape. We are trying to change that, but that’s a long time coming. This is now about a Californian way of life.”

Panelist Angela George of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works said she believes the most effective methodology would be a campaign to instill in children the techniques and habits of water conservation. “It is important to get into our schools and educate where our water comes from — a local perspective.”

Amid a crowd that included UCLA Luskin students and faculty as well as interested members of the community, passions sometimes ran high, with some questioning whether current efforts and ideas are sufficient to truly improve water conservation.

Panelists noted the importance of individuals working closely with local government in order to push for reforms they want to see.

“You have to find out how to mobilize the political wherewithal,” Franco said. “Show up and know what’s going on, and keep telling what you want.”

The lecture and panel discussion were put together by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation in partnership with Island Press as part of a speaker series known as Luskin Innovators.

Luskin Center’s Los Angeles River Greenway Toolkit project receives funding from Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation

Metro LA River photo_0The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation has a awarded a grant of approximately $80,000 to the Luskin Center to develop a “how-to” manual for community-driven greenway projects along the Los Angeles River. Recognizing the vast untapped potential for accessible active transportation and healthy recreational opportunities along the River, and several decades of progress already made by community-based non-profits and local government in the northern part of the River, the Luskin Center set out to compile, analyze and repackage decades of institutional wisdom into an accessible and application-oriented guide called a “toolkit.” This toolkit will present step-by-step instructions for community leaders interested in developing: 1) a multi-modal linear pathway along the Los Angeles River, 2) a River-adjacent green open space, 3) a neighborhood access point or 4) a multi-modal bridge to improve access across the River.

Despite several decades of grass-roots and local government attention to the Los Angeles River, communities still lack the resources and tools that they need to engage directly with the River revitalization process. The Los Angeles River Greenway Toolkit project fills a vital gap with an accessible and well-researched guide designed to support river-adjacent communities. Henry McCann is the project manager and is working with graduate student researchers Andrew Pasillas and Shafaq Choudry, in addition to collaborating with a myriad of community organizations.

UCLA Engineering’s mobile plant hits the road to treat polluted water

Written by Bill Kisliuk, UCLA Newsroom 

“A rolling water treatment plant designed by UCLA researchers made a pit stop on campus this week before heading north to the San Joaquin Valley, where it will help address California’s inadequate water supply.

The first of its kind, the plant, installed in a 40-foot cargo container, is designed to desalinate and purify as much as 27,000 gallons of agricultural runoff and groundwater a day. That’s equivalent to the average daily water use of about 90 U.S. families.

The technology was developed by Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the UCLA Water Technology Research Center, and Anditya Rahardianto, assistant researcher in UCLA’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability…”

Read full article here.

For more media coverage about the Rolling Water Treatment Plan go here:

Luskin Center Joins California Urban Water Conservation Council to Advance So Cal Water Supply Resiliency Research

In mid-March, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation attended the Plenary Meeting of the California Urban Water Conservation Council (Council) to accept membership in the Council of over 400 urban water suppliers, environmental advocacy organizations, and water policy researchers. Formed in 1991, this collaborative forum brings together urban water suppliers, the water policy community, and environmental advocates to advance water conservation throughout the state. The Council develops innovative practices and technologies for water efficiency and conservation, encourages effective public policy decision-making, advances research, training, and public education, and builds on collaborative partnerships.

The Council’s founding Memorandum of Understanding requires urban water supplier signatories to provide detailed information about their water supply sources, water deliveries, water distribution and billing systems and implementation of water conservation rebates and incentives. This rich dataset will form an important part of current research proposals in the Luskin Center’s Smart Water Systems Initiative. Using drought and the long term impacts of climate change on the region’s water resources as a contextual lens, the Luskin Center will identify urban water agencies in Southern California that are increasingly resilient to short and long term drought conditions. The Luskin Center will also identify those agencies that are increasingly vulnerable to current and future drought conditions. As proposed, this analysis will be presented as an online web-mapping tool and database called the Southern California Water Atlas and Archive. This project will provide valuable resources for furthering water policy research initiatives, improving local water supply planning, and enhancing regional resiliency to climate change impacts.

Urban water supply signatories to the Council’s MOU are required to self-report and deliver data every two years. Many of the datasets collected before 2008 are still in hardcopy format, while all records submitted after 2008 are stored in digital format. Data collected by the Council includes information on water sources and uses, utility operations and practices, water loss control, metering, retail conservation pricing, retail wastewater rates, public information programs, rebates for residential, industrial, commercial, and institutional water customers, and landscape conservation programs.

The California Urban Water Conservation Council emerged in the mid-1990s from a growing concern for water supply reliability and the efficient use of water resources through conservation. To assist urban water agencies in achieving this goal, urban water suppliers, water policy analysts, and environmental groups created the nonprofit organization. Over several decades, the Council grew into a hub for innovative practices and policies that advance water conservation efforts statewide. Many attribute major decreases in per capita urban water usage in Southern California over the last several decades to the Council’s efforts.


Water saver: Engineer’s invention makes dirty water reusable

Written by By Judy Lin, UCLA Today

L.A.’s Griffith Park shows signs of the California drought, which is now in its third year.

When Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved $687 million in relief funds to cope with the state’s devastating drought, he noted, “This legislation marks a crucial step, but Californians must continue to take every action possible to conserve water.”

Yoram Cohen is working on it.

For the past two years, in the backyard of a house in West Los Angeles, the UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Water Technology Research Center has been field-testing a “vertical wetlands” that mimics a wetlands in nature. That’s when dirty water gets naturally filtered as it runs through an expanse of plants, rocks, soil and indigenous bacteria as it makes its way to a river or other waterway.

Cohen’s Gray2Blue Mobile Wetland Graywater Treatment System cleans hundreds of gallons of “gray water” — runoff from the test home’s showers, bathroom sinks and laundry machine — that is then reused to irrigate trees and gardens.

The Gray2Blue pilot system, with its maximum output capacity of 560 gallons of reusable water a day, could conceivably save Californians billions of gallons of water. But it would require changes to state water regulations that, in many ways, slow the march toward water sustainability.

Cohen is working on that too.

“I’ve reached a stage in my life where I want to see things happen, not just find ways to solve problems from the technical viewpoint. Sometimes the impediments [to problem-solving are really a combination of technology and policy,” said Cohen, who has been working on water reclamation, recycling, reuse and desalination for much of his 30-year career at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is also a member of the UCLA Grand Challenges project team working towards its goal of “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles: Achieving 100% Sustainability in Energy, Water and Biodiversity by 2050.”

Cohen is working in collaboration with chemical engineering Ph.D. student Zita Yu, whose research focuses on the development of Gray2Blue and the policy and economic aspects of onsite graywater treatment and reuse in urban and rural areas. Also onboard is the Luskin Center for Innovation at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Their intent is to build a case for California regulators and residents alike to rethink how we use water.

Gray water from the test home’s bathroom sinks, showers and laundry is pumped outside into a holding tank.

“There’s been this whole idea that you use water once, and then you dump it in the sewer,” said Cohen. “That’s been the mindset.”

Gray2Blue, a refrigerator-size contraption of white plastic crates and plumbing topped with a patch of colorful flowers, challenges that notion. Graywater is pumped into the flower bed and, over a period of about three hours, percolates down through a two-foot layer of plant roots and soil that act as “phytoremediators” that filter out particles and contaminants. The water then passes through a biofilm layer of scum-eating bacteria and finally drips like gentle rain into a collection bin connected to irrigation pipes and a storage tank.

Reusing gray water isn’t a new concept, the researchers say, but Gray2Blue takes it to a whole new level. The water it produces is of high enough quality to meet California’s Title 22 standards for tertiary, disinfected, reclaimed water — water for aboveground, non-potable reuses like sprinkling a lawn or flushing a toilet. But under current regulations, Cohen noted, treated gray water can be used only sub-surface, as in the test home’s underground irrigation system. That leaves a large quantity of high-quality, filtered water going to waste, while the home’s above-ground lawn sprinkler and toilets continue to draw from the household’s supply of potable water.

The Gray2Blue system cleans gray water that is pumped into the flower bed on top and slowly percolates down through  layers of soil and biofilm that serve as natural filters.

Gray2Blue’s efficiency in harvesting high-quality water bolsters Cohen and Yu’s determination to persuade policymakers to reassess state water regulations. To this end, the researchers have been producing policy papers, including a recent analysis of water regulations in all 50 states.

California, with its long tradition of environmental awareness, has some of the strictest standards, Cohen noted. “I don’t fault that,” he said. “But I think we also need to be more progressive.”

Also in need of revision, he said, is the regulatory process for certifying a system like Gray2Blue. Currently, the state requires individual homeowners to regularly monitor and report on water quality if they install such a system.

“This puts a tremendous burden on the homeowner as if he or she were a major water treatment plant,” said Cohen. Instead, he said, regulators should certify not the individual users but the Gray2Blue system — the same way that household appliances are certified.

“When you get a stove, the stove is certified that it’s not going to emit carbon monoxide. You’re not required to continuously monitor your stove,” said Cohen. “You have to streamline the [graywater treatment] regulatory process rather than impose additional burdens on people.” Otherwise, he’s concerned that some people, pressured by the drought, will use gray water without treating it. “And then it becomes a health and potentially environmental issue.”

Cohen and Yu have also engaged in exhaustive number-crunching to determine everything from how much water the state can conserve to how much money homeowners can save: Every day a typical Californian uses about 198 gallons of water, about 62 gallons of it indoors. About half of that — some 31 gallons — ends up as gray water that could be filtered and reused. Multiply that by 37 million Californians, and that’s 1.1 billion gallons of potable water that could be saved every day.

With water rates in the city of Los Angeles currently running about $10.60 per 1,000 gallons, homeowners will save money with a system like Gray2Blue. They’ll also save on sewer charges, because water reused for watering a lawn doesn’t end up down the drain. This also helps relieve overloaded septic systems in homes that do not have sewer services.

By Cohen and Yu’s calculations, Gray2Blue — which was constructed with off-the-shelf components that run around $500-$600 or $1,300-$1,500 with the addition of an irrigation computer timer for the water pumps — could pay for itself in six months to two years. And the savings after that could add up to $2,000 a year. Cohen suggested that the state could offer homeowners a financial incentive, as it does with solar panels, to make the return-on-investment even faster.

The researchers have demonstrated the system to local and state officials, among them the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — which provided some funding for their research — and the  L.A. Department of Water and Power. Cohen and Yu have also been presenting their work at water conferences nationally and internationally. Yu recently showed Gray2Blue to officials in Hong Kong’s Water Supplies Department, which is exploring options for gray water and who were also very interested in learning about U.S. regulatory incentives and impediments.

“Our approach has been to make this technology simple, affordable and one that can contribute to solving some of our water problems,” said Cohen. “It isn’t the only solution … there isn’t just one magic solution to all of our water problems. We have to increase our water portfolio, and this is one way to do that.”


Turning a Home’s Waste Water into a Resource

As featured in a recent story on KCRW-89.9 FM’s “Which Way, LA?,” Professor Yoram Cohen and doctoral student Zita Yu, along with colleagues including Professor Michael Stenstrom, developed a low-cost technology that turns graywater waste into a residential resource. Named the Gray2Blue Mobile Wetland System, the technology has been at use in a home in West Los Angeles as part of a demonstration project supported by the Luskin Center. The system filters the home’s “graywater” – soapy water from sinks, showers and laundry – and pipes it out again to irrigate citrus trees and vegetable gardens. Plants are also a part of the system itself, helping to filter the graywater.

Roughly about 50 percent of the water that is used in a home ends up as greywater,” said UCLA engineering professor Yoram Cohen. “And if we can reuse that water, you can immediately see that the savings in water is going to be tremendous.” Cohen and Yu are now presenting their results to local and state water, health and zoning officials to inform decisions on how to regulate the further use of graywater in southern California.  The results include data from a financial assessment supported by J.R. DeShazo, an environmental economist and director of the Luskin Center.   All of this could mean that one day in the not so distant future, you too could turn the water going down your sink into a resource  your plants will love. Internationally, other cities are also starting to take notice. Yu, who was recently selected as a C200 Scholar by the prestigious Committee of 200 Foundation, presented on the regulation, technology and economics of onsite graywater reuse to the Water Supplies Department and its Advisory Board in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is considering including graywater into their water portfolio.