You Can’t Drink Paper Water

UWMP Paper Water b

Why should you care what the DWP’s 2015 Urban Water Management Plan says?

You should care because city officials will use the UWMP when making decisions about future development in LA. They will be relying on the plan’s absurdly optimistic projections regarding future water resources to justify approving projects that could burden our dwindling water supply with unsustainable demands.

But first, let’s put this discussion in the right context. People talk about how we’re in the fourth year of the drought, and the assumption is that even if things are really bad now, eventually the drought will end and we’ll be back to normal. This is a big mistake. Everybody has their fingers crossed, hoping that this year’s heavy precipitation in the Sierras will restore the snowpack and we’ll be okay again. Actually, the snowpacks have been declining for decades, and there’s no reason to believe that trend will reverse itself in the near future. If you’re skeptical about this claim, check out these links.

Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada Lowest in 500 Years from NY Times

Declining Snowpacks May Cut Many Nations’ Water from Columbia University

This isn’t just a matter of toughing it out through a few dry years. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to use a lot less water than we’re used to. And this is not just a matter of taking shorter showers or getting rid of your lawn. We have to change the way we think about water in LA.

But in spite of the fact that we’re playing a whole new game, the people who run this city are determined to cling to the same old rules. Los Angeles was built largely on real estate speculation. For decades developers kept pushing the City’s boundaries outward, and this was only possible because the people who ran LA kept extending the reach of our water infrastructure. Local groundwater only supplies about 10% to 15% of what we need. The rest comes from sources far beyond the city limits.

We’ve gotten so used to living beyond our means that we still haven’t come to terms with the reality of our shrinking water resources. And in spite of all the rhetoric from City Hall about conservation, when it comes to planning for growth, our elected officials are determined to deliver everything the developers ask for.

So what’s wrong with the 2015 UWMP? In broad terms it does a good job of outlining the challenges that the City faces. But when we get down to specifics, the authors manage to avoid spelling out the severity of the situation. And in talking about the future of our water resources, things get very vague.

You want some examples?

The plan does talk about the fact that we’ll be getting much less water from the LA Aqueduct than we have in the past. In order to mitigate severe environmental impacts to the Owens Valley and Mono Lake, the City has agreed to reduce the amount it imports from the area. In the 70s and 80s, the Aqueduct generally brought us over 400,000 acre feet per year (AFY). That number started to drop in the 90s, and while some years have been better than others, the average has continued to decline, especially in the last four years. In 2014/2015 we received only 53,500 AFY. Less than 14% of what we were getting thirty years ago. This is a record low.

Graph showing LA Aqueduct deliveries from the 2015 UWMP.

Graph showing LA Aqueduct deliveries from the 2015 UWMP.

There’s another figure I’d like to cite in connection with the LA Aqueduct, and that’s the amount of water it delivered to us from April through September 2015.


Last year the LA Aqueduct was closed for the first time in its history. A temporary dam was put in place so that the City of LA could fulfill its obligations to maintain the Owens Valley and Mono Lake. During this period, we received no water from the aqueduct. I can’t claim to have read the entire UWMP, but in the reading I have done I didn’t come across any references to this closure. Maybe that’s because it’s such a stark symbolic reminder of the gravity of our situation.

So how are we going to replace the water we used to get from the Aqueduct? Of course, there’s the usual talk about recycling and stormwater capture, both of which are certainly worthwhile, but it will be years before they start making a serious difference with regard to our water supply. And then there’s this section from the Executive Summary under the heading Water Transfers.

LADWP plans on acquiring water through transfers of up to 40,000 AFY to replace a portion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (LAA) water used for environmental enhancements in the eastern Sierra Nevada. The City would purchase water when available and economically beneficial for storage or delivery to LADWP’s transmission and distribution system.

Wow. That’s great. It’s so simple. We’ll can just suck up another 40,000 AFY through water transfers from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD).  But the problem here is that they’re assuming MWD will reliably have access to that much water.  The UWMP mentions transfers of water originally intended for agriculture in the Central Valley.  What?  Have they seen the photos of landscapes collapsing due to overpumping?  In order to justify the claim that we can rely on these water transfers, the UWMP bases its calculations on the historic average of water supplies going back to the 20s.  They offer a chart titled “MWD Forecast Supplies of Groundwater Storage and Transfers in 2040, Average Year (1922 – 2004 Hydrology) “.  In other words, they’re basing their calculations on conditions that existed well before the current crisis began.  And they’re using those figures to project water supplies 25 years into the future.

But what about groundwater? Right now the supplies we get from aquifers within city limits provide between 10% and 15% of what we use annually. But in the Executive Summary under the heading Water Supply Reliability the DWP offers this startling prediction.

The exhibits show that the City’s locally-developed supplies will increase from 14 percent to 49 percent in dry years or to 47 percent in average years.

What a relief! Using purified wastewater and captured stormwater we’re going to more than triple our groundwater resources! But wait. It gets even better.

These local supplies are not influenced by variability in hydrology, and will become the cornerstone of LA’s future water supplies.

This is really amazing. Our local supplies are not influenced by variability in hydrology! In other words, the same factors that affect water resources everywhere all over the world will not affect the groundwater in LA. Though they don’t provide much in the way of explanation, it seems that the folks at the DWP have somehow cast a magic spell over the City. No matter how hot it gets or how little it rains, we can rest assured that our aquifers will soon be supplying us with almost half of the water we need.

I wonder if that same magic spell protects us from toxic chemicals. Because most of our groundwater comes from wells in the San Fernando Valley, and about half of those wells are closed right now because of industrial pollution. The DWP does have a plan to build two treatment plants that will purify the water from these sources, but it could be years before they break ground. At this point they don’t even have the funding lined up.

But rather than subjecting you to more of my ranting, let me turn this over to somebody who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do and who does a way better job of breaking it down. DroughtMath is a blog that digs deep into water issues, and you can find a detailed breakdown of the 2015 UWMP there. I recommend starting with this post, which clearly lays out how the DWP uses “paper water” to pretend that they’ll have no problem supplying the City with everything it needs. What is paper water? It’s water that “utilities claim they have access to, but is difficult or impossible to access for various reasons.” But go ahead and check out what DroughtMath has to say on the subject.

LADWP’s Paper Water Leverages on MWD Supplies from DroughtMath

He also gives a good overview of the UWMP and its many flaws in this post.

Thoughts on the 2015 Draft UWMP from DroughtMath

I want to wrap up by saying that in spite of the anger and sarcasm in my tone, I do not see the DWP as the bad guy here. While the agency has had its share of scandals, the men and women who work there mostly do an amazing job of making sure that we almost always get the water we need. When you think about the fact that the DWP serves an area of about 400 square miles, and that we have little in the way of local resources, it’s remarkable that they have built and maintained a system that reliably brings us water for bathing, washing, cooking, and cleaning with few disruptions.

The bad guys are the developers and politicians who refuse to recognize that there are very real limits to our water resources. The bad guys are those people who are so blinded by greed and ego that they don’t want the citizens of LA to know how seriously compromised those resources are. The UWMP may seem like just another boring technical report, but it has huge consequences for the City’s future growth.

I am not saying we should stop growth. I’m saying we need to have a realistic picture of how much growth we can support. We can only make decisions about future development if we have an accurate picture of our water resources. The draft 2015 UWMP does not provide that.

If you’re as concerned as I am, I urge you to make your voice heard. The first step is to take a look at the UWMP. I know, I know, it’s a lengthy, intricate technical document and probably nobody’s idea of a good read. But you don’t have to go through the whole thing. Just take a look at the Executive Summary, which provides an overview of the contents and conclusions.

2015 UWMP at LADWP

The first public hearing is already past, but there’s a second one on March 9 from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Sepulveda Garden Center, 16633 Magnolia Blvd., in Encino.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, you can still submit comments by e-mail. The deadline is March 16. Here’s the address.

If you’re concerned about development, or if you just care about the city you live in, please let the DWP know your feelings on this issue. If the DWP Board adopts the current version of the 2015 UWMP, it will be one more instance of our city officials placing the needs of developers with deep pockets over the needs of the people of Los Angeles.

Where’s the Water Coming From?

The Palladium, with Columbia Square rising in the background.

The Palladium, with Columbia Square rising in the background.

There’s a hearing at City Hall this Wednesday on a project proposed for the site surrounding the Palladium on Sunset. The project is called Palladium Residences, and there are two ways it could go. Either 731 residential units, or 598 residential units and a 250 room hotel. Both options include 24,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space.

My question is, where is the water for this going to come from? I think by now everybody in LA knows there’s a drought going on. In fact, an extreme drought. Gov. Brown has declared a drought state of emergency and soon the Metropolitan Water District will be cutting deliveries to its Southern California customers, including Los Angeles. Angelenos have already been asked to voluntarily cut their water consumption by 20%, but the move by the MWD means we have no choice.

So let’s look at the Palladium project in this context. How will it impact water usage in the Hollywood area?

First, in its current state, the site needs very little water. Aside from the Palladium, it’s pretty much all parking lot, so unless there’s a show going on, consumption is zero. Whatever the developer builds, it’s going to cause a large increase in water usage. Even if we assume that the project will be built utilizing every water conservation measure imaginable, we’re probably looking at a net increase of between 100 and 200 acre feet per year.

But that’s just looking at the Palladium Residences in isolation. The site is surrounded by a number of other projects that are already under construction. Right next door, we have Columbia Square, which includes 200 residential units, over 400,000 sq. ft. of office space and 30,000 sq. ft. of retail.

Columbia Square

Columbia Square

On the opposite side and just to the north the new Camden is going up, offering 287 rooms.

The Camden

The Camden

Just across the street from that is 1601 Vine, an 8-story office building. Relatively speaking, office space doesn’t require a lot of water, but since the site was previously a parking lot, there will still be a net increase in water use.

1601 Vine

1601 Vine

A couple blocks to the west, the new 182-room Dream Hotel is rising over Selma.

The Dream Hotel

The Dream Hotel

And just beyond that is the Mama Shelter Hotel, with 70 rooms, which will occupy a building that was previously vacant.

Mama Shelter Hotel

Mama Shelter Hotel

Remember, all of these projects are being built on sites that previously consumed little or no water. It’s important to say, too, that all these hotels will have at least two restaurants, and will be hosting banquets, which drives water use way up. So putting all this together, conservatively speaking, we’ll probably see a net usage increase of at least 500 acre feet of water per year.

But wait. There’s more. Aside from the projects I’ve already mentioned, there are around 60 others proposed for the Hollywood area, many of them just as large as the ones listed above. So we’re not just talking about 500 additional acre feet of water per year. We’re talking thousands more. And that’s just Hollywood. If you look at Downtown, you’ll see a similar number of projects, some of them way bigger than anything proposed for Hollywood. There are also plans for major developments for Wilshire Blvd., the Crenshaw District and Boyle Heights.

Does anyone see a problem with this?

I’m not saying we should put a halt to development. But we do need to figure out how much development we can actually support. The DWP says that LA is in fairly good shape in the near term, but they’re only looking a couple of years ahead. Some scientists think this drought could last for several more years. By now everybody who lives in California knows that many of our reservoirs are at less than half of capacity, and the snow pack has shrunk to 6% of what’s normal for spring. The wells in the San Fernando Valley that we used to rely on have become contaminated, and it will take years before they’re cleaned up.

We need to figure out a water budget. First the DWP needs to prepare a realistic estimate of how much water we can rely on for at least the next five years. Then the Department of City Planning needs to make sure they have solid numbers regarding the water that will be consumed by each proposed project. With that information, they can make a cumulative assessment of the impact all these projects will have on our water resources, and prioritize them based on how beneficial they’ll be to the community. Let’s get real. We don’t have the water to build all this stuff. Even if we have supplies to last for the next year or two, these projects will be consuming water for decades, and some scientists believe this drought could get much worse than it already is. We need to know how much water we can realistically count on, and then we need to plan accordingly.

The Mayor has been telling us that we need to cut our water use by 20%, but at the same time he’s pushing this aggressive development agenda which is guaranteed to boost water consumption even as Angelenos are told they need to conserve. And let’s be honest. We haven’t made much progress in cutting our water use. Even with the threat of a massive drought, we’re using about as much water as we always have. So residential towers and high-rise hotels are just pushing us farther into the danger zone.

We need development, but it has to be planned development. If the City of LA wants to grow, it needs to find out first how much water we have, and how much each of these projects is going to consume. Much of the reason we’re in trouble today is that for decades the City allowed massive growth without proper planning. We’ve been sucking up water from all over the Southwest to build a vast metropolis in an area that has very little water of its own. We can’t do that any more. We need to start living within our means.

Another view of The Palladium, now with The Camden construction site in the background.

Another view of The Palladium, now with The Camden construction site in the background.