H2 uh-0h: The Reality of Water Scarcity in Southern California

The natural West is a desert landscape, and Los Angeles is a fragile construction of a city. In fact, it would be fatally dry if not for the deliberate diversion of water that is not native to the Los Angeles basin. This is not to say that the future of Los Angeles as modern metropolis is uncertain; rather, it will not have the option of functioning the way that it functions now, 50 years from now, if not fewer. This is because of something not every Angeleno thinks about day-to-day: Los Angeles imports water, exclusively. The city would not exist otherwise. And the infrastructure through which that water travels needs help – billions of dollars worth of help. The cost of that water is rising already, and will need to continue to rise. The effects of climate change are impacting the supply of the water that we do import. Essentially, Los Angeles has a water problem without a corresponding sense of crisis.
California is not the only state in danger of water scarcity: much worse off are Texas and Nevada. Both states are experiencing record dryness (the Ogallala Aquifer, which accounts for 40% of water used in Texas, will decline in volume by 52% between 2010 and 2060; Lake Mead, the source of 95% of water for Las Vegas, will be dry in the next 4 to 10 years. See this drought map for more information). Because of UCLA Extension’s location in Southern California, however, I wanted to figure out what Los Angeles is going to do about water and what ideas are floating around now to secure a reliable source in the future. I will be writing another blog entry shortly that addresses the countrywide and worldwide water crisis.

Lake Mead, 2008, taken during the 7th straight year of drought (Photo Courtesy of MSNBC)

So, where did Los Angeles’s water problems begin? Behold a short history of water in Los Angeles: founded in 1781, the city was supplied by water from the Los Angeles River and flourished for about 120 years. By 1903, however, the population had risen to over 100,000, and the river was nearly dry. William Mulholland, Supervisor of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the time, was commissioned to find a new source of water. In 1908, construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct began, and was completed under Mulholland’s supervision in 1913. The aqueduct used gravity to move water from the Owens Valley, 233 miles away, to Los Angeles. The original aqueduct is still used to bring water to Los Angeles today. When Owens Valley water proved insufficient, Mulholland completed projects that brought water from the Mono Basin, 338 miles away; and from the Colorado River, which currently supplies The Metropolitan Water District in Californiaa, six other states, and parts of Mexico. All three resources are still used to supply Los Angeles and surrounding areas today.
Fortunately, much has changed since the days of Mulholland’s reign at LADWP. The reckless abandon with which the LADWP of the early 20th century rearranged nature to fulfill its water needs is no longer (projects like the Los Angeles Aqueduct devastated Owens Valley agriculture and its natural wildlife habitat). However, Southern California is still heavily dependent on imported water. The 21st century LADWP is focusing now on securing a future for Los Angeles by securing water – in a different sense than Mulholland was. The agency recently unveiled some interesting and encouraging plans, outlining how it plans to maintain a sustainable water supply for Los Angeles, and the surrounding areas, in the future. See infographics

Courtesy of NRDC

Courtesy of NRDC

These projections suggest that, over the next 25 years, the LADWP plans to purchase half of what it is purchasing now from the Metropolitan Water District (supplied by the Colorado River), in percentage terms – dropping from 48% to 24%. To make up for this decrease in MWD water, the LADWP plans to utilize California’s natural groundwater, and to recycle 7% more water than it is now. This plan is the most ambitious of any water agency in California, but the means to its end are somewhat mysterious. It is the implementation of these plans that is the key to success, and such implementation has yet to be seen.
Our water agencies are working to protect the lifestyle that is available to us now; yet, there is another aspect of the water issue that needs to be addressed: the sociological one. Kaid Benfield, the Director for sustainable communities and smart growth at The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), addresses this problem in an article that included California in its assessment: by 2020, Benfield cites, “California will face a shortfall of fresh water as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today”. He continues:
A major problem with so many environmental issues, including this one, is that the damage occurs slowly, so that people are lulled into gradually accepting additional increments of deteriorating conditions without alarm. But that doesn’t change the facts.
This is not to say that the LADWP, for example, is not planning to change this trend. It is that the LADWP alone cannot change a trend that depends on the deeply ingrained habits of the denizens of Los Angeles – that habit being endless availability of resources. If this trend is to change permanently, it must change via the mutual efforts of the agencies involved and their customers.
So, the writing is on the wall: we need to be aware of water. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, echoes Benfield’s statements about the lack of alarm in areas that depend on imported water. Even though California’s 37 million residents live in a “real-life theme ride of droughts, fires, floods and earthquakes,” he says, “there is little sense of crisis”. Gleick warns that “we know that in five years we’ll be in trouble, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If there were more education and awareness about water issues, if we started to really think about the natural limits about where humans and ecosystems have to work together to deal with water…then we could reduce the severity of the problems enormously. I’m just not sure we’re going to”. Gleick hits on both the sociological and philosophical aspects of the issue – that the communities which are predicted to be most affected by water scarcity, such as the three million plus residents of Los Angeles alone, need to be aware that we all need to make sacrifices to conserve, and that the way water gets to us will change one way or the other. The change will be less severe with cooperation.  It is not an inherent flaw of people in communities that have had reliable water for a century, to not see water as the “transparent gold” that it is. It is a matter of education, of making information available and ubiquitous.
Of course, it is not expected that Southern California will stop importing water, as this Los Angeles Times article reports. Past expectations, however, is the proof: that energy pressures, combined with environmental problems, are forcing the question of the long-term reliability of importswhich are, as aforementioned, unreliable at best. The reshaping of water policy must follow.
The fundamental question is (paraphrased from Peter Gleick): in the 21st century, is it appropriate, or even necessary, to use water resources in a nonrenewable and unsustainable way? I would venture to say the answer is a resounding “no”. And although our elected officials are working on securing California’s water future, each of us also needs to contribute to water conservation, as well as stay conscious of our water footprint, as residents of a desert region. I urge you to visit the websites in the section below, and as always, welcome your comments or questions.
Read on:
Find the source of your water: http://www.water-ed.org/watersources/
Calculate your water footprint: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/water-footprint-calculator/
100 ways to conserve water: http://wateruseitwisely.com/100-ways-to-conserve/index.php
10 things you should know about water: http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2009/world/infographic-ten-things-you-should-know-about-water/
This entry was posted in Built Environment, California Budget, Climate Change, Infrastructure, Public Health, Renewable Resources, Sustainability, Water and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to H2 uh-0h: The Reality of Water Scarcity in Southern California

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