April 5, 2012
Southern California residents have had a contentious relationship with water supply, since the founding of Los Angeles in 1781. After California became part of the United States in 1850, development and migration to Los Angeles from across the country and the world became prevalent; largely due to human perceptions of the environment that the Los Angeles River had supported. The proliferation of this trend resulted in an enduring growth in population and with it a greater need to supply water. Over the years of Los Angeles development, city officials were forced to look to outside of the city for sources water that would prove to have negative implications on the environment and for the future of Los Angeles water supply.
Prior to the extensive urbanization of Los Angeles, the L.A. River was one of the only water sources that would flow year round. Due to the distinct geology of the region, the river’s pattern constantly changed from one rainy season to the next and much of the rivers water supply came from underground sources, which made capturing and distribution of water burdensome for city officials. In the early 1900s, in response to the need for more water and to prevent underground water supplies from becoming contaminated, Los Angeles city officials took extreme actions to ensure that the city would continue to have a reliable water source, despite the increasing population. City officials were able to supply millions of additional gallons of water to residents by installing new infiltration galleries, drilling several wells into the river, and creating a 1,178-foot tunnel that was driven into bedrock and served as a reservoir to collect percolated water from the wells. However, this only provided temporary relief to the mounting water crisis in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles River, its many tributaries, and underground supply was the city’s sole source of water until 1913. After which time the river could no longer sustain the needs of the city’s growing population. Today, Los Angeles gets its water delivered across 444-miles and over some 2-000 feet of elevation from the State Water Project; the 1,400-mile long Colorado River; a share of California’s collective 30% groundwater usage; and from aqueducts that collect water from: Owens River, Mono Lake Basin, and reservoirs on the east slopes of the southern Sierra Mountains, all traveling over some 223-miles. The distance at which Los Angeles has, literally, gone to secure water for this city is astounding. Especially when considering the huge amounts of energy that providing and using water consumes. Energy is a costly and environmentally intensive resource to produce, and when coupling that with the costs of the water supply-use-disposal chain (figure 1) and we have simply compounded these costs.
According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one source that provides Water to Los Angeles, The State Water Project (SWP), is the single largest user of energy in California, accounting for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in the State. Supplying water through energy intensive projects like the SWP, ultimately leads to climate change, creating a water-energy-climate change feedback loop. According to this same report, power plants emit approximately 40-percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, the primary cause of climate change.
Today concerns about water trouble most regions of California and conservation efforts remain too minimal to counter the damage. Overshadowing these concerns, however, is an even greater threat—global climate change. Current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are approximately 394 parts per million (ppm), per data from the Mauna Loa Observatory. Scientists believe that unless emissions are reduced to below 350 ppm, average temperatures in the United States could increase by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with implications for greatly affecting water supply and water management. As more and more emerging studies continue to project rising temperatures across the world, California and LA in particular must resolve its water crisis, or soon face a crippling scarcity that could very well spell its ruin.
Climate change presents a variety of obstacles to LA’s future as a globally powerful and influential metropolis, but none are as critical as the implications this has on the region’s water supply. As previously stated, the Sierra Nevada mountain range currently provides about one third of the nearly 200 billion gallons of water each year used by customers of the Department of Water and Power. Decreased precipitation, a highly likely consequence of climate change in southern California, will reduce Sierra snowpack accumulation, which sustains much of the city’s water supply in dry months. Higher temperatures are already troubling, with snow melt occurring slightly sooner each year. This water from the mountains is one of LA’s most vital sources of high quality water, though decreased flow volume and pattern could someday change that.
Moreover, many climate models showing rainfall changes forecast an overall shift to drier climatic conditions in many of the regions that supply Los Angeles. Even minor increases in temperature have been linked to altered flow patterns, with higher rates in winter and lower rates in summer when demand is at its highest. Droughts are expected to increase in frequency across the southwest, posing a threat to southern California’s continued diversion of the Colorado River as well as increasing the concentration of pollutants in shrinking bodies of water.
There is ample evidence to support the frightening scenarios for LA’s future that are increasingly a topic of serious concern among residents. The notion of water scarcity in this region is not new and some have attempted to combat it, however nothing has proven effective. Significant advances in adaptation and mitigation measures are imperative to southern California’s future, especially if population continues to grow.
Water conservation is a complex subject, one that LA residents must understand more completely before successful strategies can emerge. It is vital to identify factors and behaviors that contribute to water supply stress so that they may be targeted and resolved. One rather evident factor is that Los Angeles has been significantly slower than other large cities in the US in assessing the future of its environment, resources, and consumption. In recent years, more and more action plans, legal measures and shareholder committees have taken form, but few encouraging reports of progress are heard. Regulations or changes to land permit terms spend years in the courts and cases for conservation are often lost. Furthermore, there are frequent instances where seemingly good policies end up hurting the situation more than they helping it. Perhaps the most relevant example of this in regards to balancing growing demand and dwindling supply is the DWP’s tiered pricing structure for water use. Besides setting the price ceiling for water far lower than a free market system would indicate, the structure favors large property owners, who pay less per gallon to irrigate each acre than owners of modest parcels and low consumption. Keeping rates for use unnaturally low hides the truth of scarcity and provides residents a false sense of security that could soon give out.
The culture of Los Angeles water use is a direct result of the flaws in the water pricing system, and has created one of the cornerstones of this culture by encouraging wasteful water use practices. Runoff from overwatered lawns, hosing down of concrete sidewalks, ornamental plants, and countless other factors serve as evidence of a lack of concern over the possible consequences of everyday things. There is no incentive to not waste water, and since the effects of widespread withdrawals have yet to truly be felt, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for government subsidies for use of newer, efficient home products to actually exacerbate consumption. When price per use falls, use often rises because the true cost that is being paid is obscured by the imposed price break.
With these things in mind, developing and enacting more effective policies and behaviors seems less formidable. Perhaps if everyone understands the implications of water scarcity, a fair and equal pricing system can be constructed. Even if everyone in LA decides they’ll keep their large yards and pay the price, the DWP would generate revenue that could be channeled into improved technology and engineering practices. For instance, treatment of the gray-water from sinks, showers, and appliances has existed for quite some time, with some facilities able to restore some wastewater into potable water. However, such facilities rarely gained approval as a result of spreading misinformation that challenged the water’s cleanliness. Even if a city’s populace refuses to drink the water, it is rarely suggested that the water be recycled for agricultural or industrial purposes despite the availability of fully adequate facilities. Treatment and reuse of some wastewater could greatly alleviate current pressure on supply, yet no one seems interested. On a better note, plans to clean up the wells beneath the San Fernando Valley floor are making progress and reflect an encouraging shift in attitudes among policymakers seeking to improve reliability of local resources.
Finally, minor individual undertakings can add up to mean a lot in a city as large as LA. Besides replacing inefficient appliances and other goods, more people are adopting the practice of xeriscaping, which involves planting of landscape vegetation that is suited to the climatic conditions. One study’s calculations found that substituting plants that are suited for LA’s arid weather for a typical lawn could save roughly 50 thousand gallons of water per year. Xeriscaping is a not only a practical step in conserving water, it can be as vibrant as any other garden so city dwellers can retain the aesthetic value that they have come to prize so greatly.
The history of extreme measures taken by the city would forever change the hydrology of southern California, the sources in which the city received her water, and continue to promote poor water usage habits by residents that persist throughout today. This has left Los Angeles vulnerable to changing climate conditions and placed and the burden on today’s generation to create solutions to address these issues. Because the consequences of overuse have rarely been directly felt, lax attitudes toward water wastefulness have become ingrained in the culture and poor policy decisions and enforcement have only made matters worse. As more studies project a dismal future for Los Angeles water supply and with climate change and development continuing to grow, city dwellers are faced with the need to change their habits before it’s too late. By isolating the key contributing factors of this water crisis, and adopting long term strategies for adaptation and mitigation, the city might find a way out of the mess that began so long ago when the first settlers arrived on the pristine banks of the LA River.
This post was written by Christina Robles ’12 and Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who are both pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.
Climatopolis by Matthew Kahn
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website
Natural Resources Defense Counsel
Water Education Foundation