Can the City of LA Keep Growing If Its Water Resources Keep Declining?

The City of Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the water it imports from sources far beyond its borders.  While the ratios vary widely from year to year, on average we get about 10% of our annual supply from groundwater within the city limits.  The remaining 90% has to be imported from places hundreds of miles away.

Which means we really should pay attention to the Water Supply Alert issued by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) on August 17.  The entire State of California, and in fact much of the Western US, is experiencing extremely dry conditions.  At this point the MWD is asking for citizens, businesses and public agencies to make voluntary reductions, but there’s a good chance that stricter measures will be needed in the not too distant future.  Through careful planning and good stewardship, the MWD has managed to build up significant reserves which might provide a buffer for the next year or two.  But we can’t be complacent.  This year the California Department of Water Resources has cut allocations from the State Water Project to just 5% of requested supplies.  It’s possible that next year the allocation could be reduced to zero.  On top of that, for the first time ever, the Bureau of Reclamation has declared a shortage on the Colorado River.  Lake Mead supplies much of the water that Southern California relies on, and storage there has been declining faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.  Right now the water level is lower than it’s been at any time since Hoover Dam was constructed. 

Which leaves us with the LA Aqueduct.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles business leaders were working hard to promote the city’s growth, but they knew that the area’s water resources were limited.  In looking for solutions to this problem, they set their sights on the Owens Valley, over 200 miles away.  Using secretive and dishonest means, the City of LA managed to purchase rights to much of the water in the Owens Valley, and then began construction of the LA Aqueduct under the supervision of William Mulholland.  In LA the completion of the Aqueduct was hailed as an engineering marvel, and for a time Mulholland was celebrated as a hero.  Needless to say, the people of the Owens Valley didn’t see things quite the same way.  For them, the diversion of water resources to the Aqueduct resulted in disastrous environmental impacts, and set the stage for decades of litigation.

Mulholland Memorial Fountain from DWP Photo Collection at LA Public Library

In 1940, five years after Mulholland’s death, a fountain was built at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive to honor the man primarily responsible for the construction of the LA Aqueduct.  The choice to create a fountain was considered a fitting way to commemorate the role Mulholland played in securing the water that was necessary for the city’s growth.  For decades cool, crystalline plumes arched into the air and cascaded into the rippling pool below.

Today the fountain is dry and it’s surround by a chain link fence.  While a search on the net didn’t reveal any explanation, it seems likely that LADWP shut it down in response to the looming water shortage.  This is certainly a sensible step to take, but it should also raise questions about LA’s future.  Mulholland was celebrated because of his efforts to provide water that would support the city’s growth.  If the fountain is now dry, maybe this should be a cue to start asking how much LA can realistically grow in the future?

While government officials and the media routinely describe the situation as a drought, I don’t think that’s accurate.  In fact, I think it’s seriously misleading.  “Drought” is generally defined as a prolonged period of dry weather.  This implies that at some point the drought will end and things will get back to normal.  But there’s growing evidence that this is the new normal.  Both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct are fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas.  The Sierra snowpacks have been declining for years, and climatologists predict that they’ll continue to decline for the foreseeable future.  As for the Colorado River, California, Nevada and Arizona draw more water from this resource than it can deliver on an annual basis.  The construction of Hoover Dam masked this fact for decades, but the rapid decline of Lake Mead should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Right now it seems inevitable that water allocations to all three states will have to be reduced, but this will be a long, contentious, brutal process. 

So if all of the city’s water resources are declining, our public officials need to let go of the myth that LA can keep growing forever.  LA’s 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) assumes that all it will take is more stormwater capture and a concerted effort to conserve.  Unfortunately, stormwater capture doesn’t really work when you’re hardly getting any rain.  And while Angelenos have shown a willingness to save water in the past, current forecasts seem to indicate that we’d have to push conservation to a whole new level.  The more you cut, the harder it is to cut further.  The UWMP’s conservation projections are extremely optimistic.  It’s hard to say whether they’re realistic.

The Mulholland Memorial was intended as a monument to the man who oversaw the construction of a massive infrastructure project that allowed the city to grow rapidly.  In the state it’s in now, it seems more like a monument to the folly of those who believed you could build a city of 4,000,000 people in an area with minimal water resources.

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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