• March 9, 2020

A Deep Dive on L.A.’s Water Future

Chief Sustainability Office

A Deep Dive on L.A.’s Water Future

A Deep Dive on L.A.’s Water Future 730 487 Los Angeles County

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” W.H Auden once wrote. Science tells us water makes up about roughly two-thirds of our bodies, about the same amount of Earth itself.

Whether you are a poet or a researcher, it’s clear that water is fundamental to our very existence. Without steady and reliable access to clean water, we die. That makes the liquid a central component of the County’s Sustainability Plan.

The challenge for greater L.A. is that we live in a semi-arid region of more than 11 million people. We have been forced to import nearly 60% of our water from thousands of miles away, at great cost and use of energy.

Here, Gary Gero, the County’s Chief Sustainability Officer, offers his take on how our region can become more water smart.

Where do we get most of our water from exactly?

Countywide, the majority of our water comes from far outside our region, either through the State Water Project from the Bay-Delta area, the Colorado River Aqueduct, or from the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley.

Why is importing water such a big deal? It seems to have worked fine for decades.

Three big reasons: 1) the State Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct use a tremendous amount of electricity to move that water and generating that electricity causes air and climate pollution, 2) the aqueducts cross many fault lines, including the San Andreas Fault, as they come to Los Angeles so water supplies could be severely disrupted in a major earthquake, and 3) climate change is changing weather patterns and scientists predict that more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow making it unavailable when we need it.

What are your ideas for becoming more water independent?

The big idea is to reclaim the water that today gets tossed out into the ocean. We do a better job today of capturing a drop of water that falls 400 miles away in the Sierras than we do rain in the San Fernando Valley. We need to build the infrastructure to capture rainwater locally and – with the support of the voters – we are doing just that through the Safe Clean Water program. But, we also spend a lot of money and energy cleaning water at treatment plants only to send that water through a pipe 5 miles into the ocean. We should be using that water by putting it into the ground to supply local groundwater basins.  This is why we have set a target of getting 80% of our water locally. It just makes sense.

Is it more about reducing the amount of water we use, or just being smarter about how we get it?

Both. These two strategies have to go hand in hand.  But, the less we use, the less we need to import or find locally.  The least expensive, most environmental drop of water we have is the one that we do not use.

L.A. has already done a pretty good job of cutting down on average daily use, but we still lag other water-challenged cities like Sydney and Jerusalem. How can we get it down even more?

Yes, we’ve done a good job with indoor water usage but we have a long way to go with outdoor water. We use way too much on our landscapes and need to find ways of reducing this outdoor water use by rethinking what our outdoor spaces should look like in our Mediterranean climate that is being impacted by climate change.

What happens if we DON’T act?

We could face water shortages as climate change reduces the amount of water we have.

How does water intersect with some of the other goals of the Plan? Pollution? Energy? Open space? Health?

We are fortunate that our water is generally safe to drink, but there are still many communities – and these are largely low -income areas and communities of color – who have water that may technically be safe but that nobody would drink or even use to bathe or wash dishes and clothes because it is brown and smelly.  Water is critical to life and so we need to recognize it and treat it as the fundamental human right that it is.

Clean, abundant water is also necessary to support our local habitat and biodiversity, and to expand our urban tree canopy, which is one of our key goals in the plan. Unfortunately, most of our natural waters, such as streams and rivers, are impacted by pollution which not only threatens the health of people, but also the wildlife that depend on that water.

You read about terrible problems with lead in places like Flint. Can that happen here? Is access to clean and safe water in disadvantaged communities still an issue here in L.A.?

Our water is generally safe – which means that there are government standards to ensure it won’t make you sick.  But, we still have problems in many communities with water that fails to meet so-called “secondary” standards for taste, color, and odor.  It may not hurt you, but nobody would drink brown smelly water, nor would they want to brush their teeth with it, or bathe in it, or wash their clothes or dishes. Buying bottled water as an alternative is very expensive, especially in communities that are already facing high rents and barely getting by.

L.A voters taxed themselves to build these so-called “multi-benefit” water projects in the coming decade. What does that mean exactly?

What it means is that when we are building new infrastructure to capture and reuse stormwater we make sure that such projects also provide community benefits like new or improved parks and open space, trees and other urban greening, and even things like bike paths and other transportation projects like bus and transit stations.  Making sure these things serve local communities and simultaneously provide water benefits is the promise that we made to taxpayers.

When will see some of these Measure W projects and how will they change the face of our neighborhoods?

The first set of proposed projects are now being evaluated and we hope that many can be under construction before the end of this year.  Once these projects are completed, I think people will see neighborhoods that have less pavement and more trees, new parks, or just plants and other greening in what are otherwise unused small open spaces.  In some cases though, the actual capture systems will be invisible to the public as they will go underground in large tanks or cisterns.

Is recycling of wastewater for in-home use really feasible? The idea was a political nonstarter in L.A. a generation ago. Have we moved beyond that?

Yes, not only is it feasible but it is already being done here in California and many places around the world. There is simply no good reason to spend so much time and money to clean water only to throw it away into the ocean.  Look, we clean the water that comes in through the aqueducts or from groundwater aquifers to make it drinkable.  We can use these same technologies to further clean the water that we now throw away to make it just as clean as the water we drink.

Are we really going to save money by doing all this? It sounds expensive to build all these new plants and what not.

Yes, these are very practical and cost-effective solutions, especially as compared to the alternative of continuing to import water as energy costs increase.

How can average person help meet our goals? Is turning off the tap while brushing your teeth REALLY going to make a difference?

Sure, everyone can pitch in by conserving water indoors, but most people are already pretty efficient, especially those who live in apartments and condos.  So, the single most important thing that the average person can do is reduce their water usage outdoors if they have a yard.  This means reducing or eliminating the need for sprinklers, making those water devices more efficient and smarter, and – honestly – changing out the plants to take out those that are thirsty, like lawns, and replacing them with more natural and native plants that are more appropriate to Los Angeles.


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