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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