California’s Water Crisis: Promising Way More than We Can Deliver

Source: US Drought Monitor

Even if you don’t pay attention to the news, you’re probably aware that Los Angeles has been unusually dry for the past few years.  If you do follow the news, you may have heard that right now California’s snowpacks are well below their 20th century average.  And if you really pay attention to this stuff, you probably saw the news that the past 22-year period is the driest the American West has experienced in over a millennium.

Scary stuff.  And as the impacts of climate change grow more pronounced, there’s a good chance things will get even scarier.  Since it doesn’t seem likely that government officials or the public at large are going to make any real progress in cutting back on fossil fuels, the weird weather we’ve been seeing for the past couple decades is likely to get a whole lot weirder. 

So what can we do?  Well, the first thing we should do is stop lying to ourselves about how much water we have access to.  A recent study from UC Davis shows that water rights allocations to California’s water users are about five times the state’s annual runoff.  In other words, we’ve promised to deliver about five times more water than we actually have. 

How did this happen?  Well, back in the 20th century, when everyone was convinced that California was going to keep growing forever and that we had endless supplies of everything, Federal, State and regional agencies built a ridiculous number of dams and canals to deliver lots of water to everyone who wanted it.  Two decades into the 21st century, it should be clear to all of us that we can’t keep growing forever and that our resources are definitely limited.     

CalMatters recently ran an excellent piece by Carolee Krieger, Executive Director of California Water Impact Network, where Krieger clearly states the most important takeaway from the UC Davis report: We have to manage our water resources based on the amount of water that’s actually available.  Here’s the link to Krieger’s article. 

Here Is the First Step to a Sustainable Water Policy

California faces huge challenges in meeting its future water needs.  The first step is to be honest about how much water we actually have.  Let’s stop pretending.  It’s time to get real. 

Angels Knoll

I love cities.  And I love Downtown LA.  But the older I get, the more I think about the damage that cities do to the environment.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Downtown was largely undeveloped.  In a little over a hundred years, it’s become a dense urban landscape crowded with office buildings and residential towers, crisscrossed by roads and freeways.  As a result, LA is hotter and drier, the air is dirtier, and like every other urban center, we’re contributing to climate change in a big way.

I was wandering around Cal Plaza a while ago, and ran across a piece of Downtown I’d forgotten about. As I looked out over the city in the direction of Hill Street, I saw that directly below me there was a small park.  It took me a minute to realize it was the same park I’d seen many times at the intersection of Fourth and Hill.  It’s been fenced off for years.  Much of the greenery is dry, and the trees could certainly use some attention, but it was so cool to run across a patch of green space in the middle of all the steel and concrete. 

Actually, it’s not technically a park.  It’s a small patch of land called Angels Knoll that had been owned by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).  (I assume it got the name because it’s right night next to Angels Flight.)  When the CRA was dissolved in 2012, a petition was circulated asking the City to turn the land over to the Department of Parks & Recreation.  But that didn’t happen.  As one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the Downtown area, the property is worth a fortune.  The decision was made to put it up for sale.

A June, 2021 memo from CRA/LA, the successor agency to the CRA, sets the price of the parcel at $50 million. The buyer, Angels Landing Partners, is actually a joint venture by the Peebles Corporation, MacFarland Partners and Claridge Partners.  According to the LA Department of City Panning web site, the proposed Angels Landing project involves the construction of two skyscrapers, one rising 63 stories and the other rising 42 stories.  In addition to two hotels and 72,000 square feet of commercial space, the project also includes 180 condos and 252 apartments.  Apparently some affordable housing is supposed to be provided, but at this point it’s not clear how much. 

Of course, the project will generate lots of jobs and economic activity.  According to the Environmental Impact Report, it will also generate 10,179 metric tons of CO2 equivalent during the construction phase alone.  Beyond that, it will contribute to the steadily increasing temperatures in the LA area, along with a number of other massive projects planned for Downtown, Hollywood, Warner Center and elsewhere.

And we’ll also be losing one of the few remaining patches of green in Downtown.  City Hall has made its priorities clear.  They want the skyscrapers.  Of course, LA was built by developers and politicians who prioritized growth over everything else.  That’s how LA got to be what it is today.  But the older I get, the more I feel that this addiction to growth is incredibly destructive.  Our warming climate and shrinking water resources are a direct result of unchecked development. 

We really don’t need another skyscraper.  We absolutely need more parks.

We Need to Start Talking about LA’s Water Crisis Now

Map from US Drought Monitor, May 6, 2021

Most people who live in LA are probably already aware that this year has been an especially dry one.  We’ve gotten less than half of our average rainfall.  But it’s really important to say that it’s not just LA and it’s not just this year.  Actually, much of the Western US is dangerously dry, and there’s an increasing amount of research which seems to indicate that this could be a long-term trend.  In other words, it’s likely that things will continue to get drier and hotter in LA, California and the West. 

I’d been wanting to write about this for a while, but LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik saved me the trouble.  He recently wrote an excellent piece laying out the serious challenges California is facing, both in the near term and the long term.  To put it briefly, all of California’s water resources are declining.  The snowpacks that feed our rivers and lakes are shrinking.  We’ve depleted much of the groundwater that was so plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century.  And because western states have been taking more water from the Colorado River than is actually available, we’ll probably continue to see reduced deliveries from Hoover Dam for the foreseeable future. 

This is all very bad news. 

Whether or not this dry spell is partly the result of cyclical changes in the weather, research increasingly shows that climate change is going to take a serious toll on LA and the West.  It seems inevitable that some farmland will have to be taken out of production, though that will be a difficult and hugely controversial process.  Many species of California’s trout, steelhead and salmon will probably be extinct by the end of this century.  And while we’ve all seen the horrific damage that wildfire has caused in California’s vast natural forests, we should also be worried about the less visible but still serious impacts to our urban forests.   

Here in LA we may be spared from having to take immediate action to deal with this crisis.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Water District have been managing our resources carefully, building up reserves that could see us through the next few years.  But I’m afraid this is creating a false sense of security.  The way it looks now, it’s not just a matter of riding out a few dry years until things go back to normal.  This is the new normal.  Even if annual precipitation stays roughly the same in the future, shrinking snowpacks and the decline of the Colorado River mean water deliveries to the LA will continue to fall, and we have limited groundwater resources.  Unfortunately, our local leaders don’t seem to want to deal with this situation.  LA’s Mayor and City Council have been silent on this issue, and I don’t hear anything from the Board of Supervisors, either.  Maybe they think that if they just ignore the problem it will go away. 

This problem isn’t going away.  We need to start dealing with it.  Hiltzik explains how serious and how widespread the challenges are.  The time to act is now. 

Water Created California and the West. Will Drought Finish Them Off?

Is a Hard Rain Gonna Fall?

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Let me start off by asking, Do any of the Angelenos reading this post remember the drought we were dealing with a few years back? If not, don’t worry about it. Most of the people living in this city have forgotten all about it. We had a couple back-to-back seasons of heavy rainfall in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019, so everybody assumes we’re back to normal and there’s nothing to worry about. This is understandable because folks at the state and local level told us a while ago that the drought was over, and why would you waste time worrying about a problem that’s been taken care of?

Unless, of course, it wasn’t really taken care of.

There was an interesting article in the LA Times recently about how the 2019/2020 rainy season hasn’t been so rainy. In fact, it’s been pretty dry. If we were just talking about one year, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But in the Times story climatologist Bill Patzert asks if the drought we were experiencing earlier in this decade ever really ended.

Is California Headed Back into Drought, or Did We Never Really Leave One?

Patzert points out that, while we had a couple of really wet years recently, over the last 20 years LA’s average annual rainfall has been below the historic average. He makes the case that we’re actually experiencing a long-term drought, and that the recent years of heavy rain didn’t begin to make up for earlier losses. If this trend continues, it would have disastrous effects on our water resources.

Patzert is a very smart guy, and I think we all need to take his warning seriously. I have only one problem with the way he states his case. When people use the word “drought” they’re talking about a period of low precipitation that’s a change from normal levels. But what if this is the new normal? Global temperatures continue to rise.  In California, San Francisco and Sacramento have been growing hotter for decades. While the last decade in LA wasn’t our hottest, it was significantly hotter than the previous one. Scientists disagree on how climate change will affect precipitation in California, but based on the patterns of the past 20 years, I think it’s possible that LA just isn’t going to get as much rain as it used to.

Is this really a problem? How much does LA actually rely on rainfall for its water supply? Let’s review a few basic facts….

LA only gets between 10% and 15% of its water from local aquifers. The rest of it is delivered via massive and complex infrastructure from places hundreds of miles away. While the percentages change from year to year depending on a number of factors, we usually get about 30% of our water from the LA Aqueduct, 30% from the State Water Project, and 30% from the Colorado River. So that must mean that even if we don’t get much rain, we still have plenty of water to draw on. Right?

Wrong.

Actually, all of these water resources are declining. We’re dealing with a whole new reality, and we need to wake up to that fact. Most of the water we get in LA comes from snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As of February 18, the California Cooperative Snow Surveys report that the snowpack in the Sierras is at 53% of what’s considered normal. Most scientists who have studied this issue agree that climate change will cause continued decline in the Sierra snowpack through the end of this century, with one group saying we could see a reduction of as much as 79% by 2100. Since both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct rely on snowmelt from the Sierras, a decline of that magnitude would be catastrophic for LA.

As for the Colorado River, it’s uncertain how much longer we’ll continue to get the allotment agreed on in the Colorado River Compact. Many decades ago researchers began to realize that the allocations granted to California, Arizona and Nevada under the Compact actually add up to more water than the river can deliver. And since we’ve pretty much done nothing to correct the situation, the water level in Lake Mead has been declining for years.

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In this photo of Lake Mead it’s easy to see how far the water level has dropped in recent years.

So while it’s true that a drop in precipitation for the LA area wouldn’t, by itself, mean disaster, when you combine that with the fact that all our water resources are declining, we’re looking at a pretty desperate situation. That’s why it’s important that we take Bill Patzert seriously when he says we might still be in the middle of an extended drought. And that’s why, instead of just assuming that things are back to normal in LA, we need to start asking what the new normal really is.

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Plastic Is a Problem

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You probably already know that manufacturers use fossil fuel to make plastic.  And you’ve probably already heard the horror stories about how plastic waste is trashing the environment.  Even if you recycle the plastic you use, remember: It’s not biodegradable.  It doesn’t go away.

So there’s only one answer to this problem.  We have to use less plastic.

Can you cut the amount of plastic you use by 20%?  Can you go even further?  You may already be taking reusable bags when you go shopping.  You may already be looking for products that use less packaging.  And there’s one more step you may want to take, if you haven’t already….

STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER.

Drinking bottled water is one of the most wasteful things we do as a nation.  In addition to producing tons of plastic waste, trucking it around and keeping it cold burn a ridiculous amount of energy.  And with rare exceptions, the water you get from your tap is just as healthy as anything you get out of a bottle.  If you want to know more, check out this article from National Geographic.

Why Tap Water Is Better from National Geographic

So how about it?  Can you use 20% less plastic?

Sure you can.

RIP EPA

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If you’ve been following the news, you know that the Environmental Protection Agency is dead.  Founded in 1970 to protect the environment and human health, the EPA has played a major role in making our air clearer and our water cleaner for over four decades.

But that’s over now.  Since the appointment of a climate change denier as the agency’s administrator, the EPA has gutted protections for wetlands, slashed spending on research, and fought to delay enforcement of methane regulations.  And this is only the beginning.

So if you believe climate change is real and that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, you can’t look to the federal government any more.

Now it’s up to you.

If you own a car, you could start by driving 20% less.  If all Americans who believe climate change is real took this simple step, it would send a powerful message to the oil companies and the White House.  Ask your boss to let you telecommute on Fridays.  Or take transit one day a week.  Or talk to your co-workers about carpooling.  And there are other things you could do, too.  Think about the trips you take when you go out to shop, have fun, or hang with friends.  If you really put your mind to it, you might be able to reduce your driving by more than 20%.

And make no mistake.  It is down to you.  The federal government is no longer protecting the environment.  It’s now leading an assault on the environment.

If you don’t take action, who will?

 

Be the Light

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It’s clear that the White House doesn’t care about science. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human activity, the current administration has dropped out of the Paris Agreement and is aggressively trying to roll back regulations designed to reduce CO2 emissions.

But just because our government is going in exactly the wrong direction doesn’t mean we have to go along. Millions of Americans understand that we have to reverse the effects of climate change. If Washington isn’t going to act, then we have to act ourselves.

Can you reduce your carbon footprint by 20%? We mostly think of CO2 emissions related to transportation and industry, but there are plenty of other things that contribute to our carbon footprint, from plastic bottles to the appliances we have in our home.

Check out this list from the National Geographic. It offers 14 ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. Take a look and see how you can help. Don’t wait for Washington to change course. Make a commitment to take action yourself.

Fourteen Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Fight the darkness. Be the light.

 

Let’s Stop the Madness

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According to an October 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48% of US adults believe climate change is caused by human activity.  And yet millions of those same people get into their car every morning and head off for a commute that often involves a fair amount of time spent sitting in traffic.  We know that climate change threatens the planet, we know we need to reduce emissions, and yet we’re still locked into the same behavior that got us into this mess in the first place.

In the same poll people were asked what would make a big difference in addressing climate change.  Out of six possible responses, the first four were….

> restrictions on power plant emissions

> international agreements

> higher fuel efficiency for cars

> corporate tax incentives

The interesting thing here is that all of these steps would require the government to take action.  And let’s face it, the current administration isn’t gonna do a damn thing about climate change.  So let’s look at the last two responses….

> more people driving hybrids

> people reducing carbon footprints

The people who chose these steps were the people who were ready to take action themselves.  Switching to a hybrid is great, and getting an electric vehicle is even better, but a lot of people can’t afford to buy new car.  So what can they do?

How about cutting your driving by 20%?  Think about how you might reduce the amount of driving you do, either by taking transit, riding a bike, or walking.  Maybe you could find ways to car pool with your friends.

How many times have you been stuck sitting in traffic, staring at an endless line of brake lights, and thought to yourself, “This is crazy!”  And you’re right.  We say we want to fight climate change, but we’re stuck in the same bad habits that created this crisis.

So let’s change our habits.  Let’s stop the madness.

 

 

The Climate Is Changing. Can You?

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If you’re waiting for the White House to change its stance on climate change, you’ll be waiting a long time.  And whatever the oil companies say publicly, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the crude and the profits flowing.

So it’s down to you.

Can you cut your driving by 20%?  If every American citizen who believes climate change is a threat were to spend 20% less time on the road, it would cause a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  It would also send a message to Big Oil that we want a faster transition to renewable energy.  When their profits start falling, they’ll start listening.

So could you take public transit to work one day a week?  Or car pool with someone you know?  Instead of driving to the park this weekend could you ride your bike?  Instead of taking that epic road trip this summer, could you scale it back a little and go some place closer to home?

You can wait for the government or Big Oil take action, or you can take matters into your own hands.

Stopping climate change starts with you.

Pipelines Making You See Red?

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In spite of years of protests, the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines are both moving forward.  It’s obvious big oil isn’t listening, and neither is the White House.

So what can we do?

Use less oil.  It’s that simple.  Oil companies build infrastructure based on how much money they think they can make off it.  When oil prices started diving a couple of years ago, the industry cancelled or postponed construction of over 20 major projects.  There’s no point spending money on infrastructure if it’s not going to pay off.

What if everybody cut their driving by 20%?  The oil market is already shaky, with soft prices making investors nervous.  If we use less, supply will increase, and that will drive prices lower.  And it will also make oil companies think twice about plowing billions into building new pipelines.

So how about it?  Can you cut the amount of time you spend behind the wheel by 20%?  Not only would you be helping move the country toward clean energy, but you wouldn’t spend so much time stuck in traffic.  It’s win win.