LA’s Water Resources: It’s Getting Scary

Graphic from NASA Earth Observatory

The water situation just keeps getting more dire.  A brief recap: Last August the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) declared a Tier 1 shortage on the Colorado River, the first time it had ever taken this step.  This was not good news for Southern California, which relies heavily on water from the Colorado.  Then, in March of this year, California water officials announced that they’d be cutting allocations for the State Water Project (SWP) to 5% of requested supplies.  Another blow to Southern California, which also gets much of its water from the SWP.    

Things got even worse today, when USBR announced the first-ever Tier 2 shortage on the Colorado River.  This will not affect California immediately, since the State has senior water rights, but the way things are going it’s likely that we’ll be impacted in the next couple of years.  Scientists are predicting that the Western US will continue to get hotter and drier for the foreseeable future. 

The City of LA is in especially bad shape.  While some cities in Southern California have significant groundwater resources, Los Angeles’ supply is relatively small.  In recent years, groundwater has made up about 10% of what we use annually.  We do get water from the LA Aqueduct, but that’s not as reliable as it used to be, since snowpacks in the Sierra Nevadas have continued to decline in recent years.

Recycled water?  LADWP has been talking about that for years.  While there are big plans to reuse more of our water, right now recycling only accounts for about 2% of our supply.  It will be years before that number grows much.  Then what about desalination?  It’s very costly, very energy intensive, and causes significant environmental impacts.  There are other experimental processes out there, but nothing we can scale up quickly to replace what we’re losing from the SWP and the Colorado.

There are no easy answers.  Scientists do not see a turning point in the near future.  We’re going to have to learn to live with less water.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Over the past few decades, the City of LA has already cut its per capita water usage by quite a bit, and there’s still more we can do.  But remember, we don’t know how far this trend is going.  It’s likely we could learn to live with the level of water deliveries we’re getting now, but scientists predict that our snowpacks will continue to decline and our climate will continue to get warmer.  We haven’t seen the worst yet.

I have to say, the older I get, the more I question the wisdom of building a city of 4 million people in a place with such limited water resources.  People talk about how Hoover Dam and the State Water Project were great accomplishments, and yeah, in a way they were.  But as the water level in Hoover Dam continues to decline, as the State Water Project continues to suck the life out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I have to wonder where this is all going.

Right now, it doesn’t look good.

Here’s an excellent breakdown of the current situation from CalMatters.

Four Things to Know about Colorado River Water in California

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