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.

We Don’t Have the Water

WP 01 Head

Clearly, the crowd down at City Hall is totally out of touch with reality. They’re completely caught up in the delusion that they’re creating a dazzling new urban landscape, when in fact they’re doing tremendous damage to the City. They say they’re planning for the future, but rational people know that planning for the future means starting with the cold, hard reality of the present.

Here’s the reality. We don’t have enough water to support the current massive surge in development. Not by a long shot.

Recently the Downtown News ran an article listing more than 90 projects planned for Downtown LA. You read that right. Nine zero. But that’s only the beginning, because there are large projects planned for the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Hollywood, West LA and Warner Center. These projects will bring thousands of new residential units, along with office space, retail and restaurants, and they will boost water consumption in LA by many thousands of acre feet per year. Yeah, I know they’ll have drought-tolerant landscaping and low flush toilets. Let me repeat. These projects will boost water consumption in LA by many thousands of acre feet per year.

Los Angeles, like the rest of the southwest, is facing a severe, long-term water shortage. The TV news tells us that the drought started four years ago, and everybody’s hoping it will end with El Niño. But the conditions that created this shortage have existed for decades. This isn’t just a matter of waiting out a few dry years until things get back to normal. This is the new normal.

Lawns are turning brown all over LA as people try to decide  whether to replace them or just let them die.

Lawns are turning brown all over LA as people try to decide whether to replace them or just let them die.

Let’s start with some basic facts. LA gets its water from four sources, the LA Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct/State Water Project, the Colorado River, and local groundwater. Here’s a breakdown of how each of these resources has been compromised in recent years.

LA Aqueduct
The LA Aqueduct was dammed from April through October of this year. This was done because the DWP has been ordered by the courts to mitigate environmental impacts in the Owens Valley. That means that for roughly six months out of the year, LA received no water from the LA Aqueduct. This is the first time in the one hundred year history of the Aqueduct that it’s been dammed, but there’s a good chance it will happen again as snow packs in the Eastern Sierras continue to decline.

California Aqueduct/State Water Project
The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which serves LA, received only 20% of its allocation from the State Water Project (SWP) in 2015. The SWP depends on the Sierra Nevada snowpack for most of its water. On April 1, 2015, the statewide snowpack held only 5% of its average water content. Currently there’s no reason to believe that the decline of California’s snowpacks will be reversed in the near future, which means it’s likely that the MWD will receive only a fraction of its allotment for years to come.

Colorado River
This year the Colorado River was the one bright spot in the water picture, and local agencies received 100% of their allocations. But don’t expect that to continue. The amount of water flowing through the Colorado River has been declining for years. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are hitting record lows. It’s almost certain that allocations from the Colorado River will be slashed in the years to come.

Groundwater
For decades contamination from industrial waste has been encroaching on the wells in the San Fernando Valley. Right now about half the wells are closed. The DWP plans to build two new facilities to purify this water, but they haven’t even started construction yet, and it will be years before they’re completed.

Now maybe as you read this you’re saying, Oh, come on. It’s not so bleak. The weatherman says that El Niño is going to bring torrential rains to LA. All we need is a good wet year to fill up the reservoirs and recharge the aquifers and we’ll be okay. The drought will be over. Right?

Wrong.

Believe me, I hope we have a really wet winter this year. And if we get enough rain it could ease the drought for a couple of years. But it won’t solve the problem. All it will do is offer a reprieve.

Because the problem is not that we haven’t been getting enough rain in LA. The problem is that the snowpacks that we rely on for most of our water are shrinking steadily. This is not a new phenomenon. Snowpacks in the Western United States have been declining for decades. Check out this report issued by the American Meteorological Society.

Declining Mountain Snowpack in Western North America
American Meteorological Society, January 2005

It’s a lengthy document, and geared towards academics, so if you don’t want to plow through the whole thing I don’t blame you. Let me just give you this excerpt from the conclusion.

It is therefore likely that the losses in snowpack observed to date will continue and
even accelerate (Hamlet and Lettenmaier 1999a; Payne et al. 2004), with faster losses in milder climates like the Cascades and the slowest losses in the high peaks of the northern Rockies and southern Sierra. Indeed, the agreement in many details between observed changes in SWE [snow water equivalent, or water content of snowpacks] and simulated future changes is striking and leads us to answer the question at the beginning of this paragraph in the affirmative. It is becoming ever clearer that these projected declines in SWE, which are already well underway, will have profound consequences for water use in a region already contending with the clash between rising demands and increasing allocations of water for endangered fish and wildlife.

This report was written in 2005. Ten years later, the authors’ predictions have come true. We’ve seen California snowpacks decline drastically, and the data seems to indicate that they will continue to decline. This isn’t just limited to the West or to the US. This is part of a global trend. Check out the report released earlier this month by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Declining Snowpacks May Cut Many Nations’ Water

According to the DWP, between 2006 and 2010 we got about half our water from the Metropolitan Water District (SWP and Colorado River), about a third from the LA Aqueduct, and 11% from local groundwater. The water that flows from the SWP, Colorado River and LA Aqueduct originates as runoff from snowpacks. From all indications, those snowpacks are going to keep receding for the foreseeable future. That means we can no longer rely on the resources that used to supply about 90% of our water. And as for the aquifers that supply us with groundwater, it will be at least five years before the DWP can build the facilities to clean it up.

As the hillsides get drier, the risk of fire increases.

As the hillsides get drier, the risk of fire increases.

There are lots of ideas out there about how to cope with this crisis, recycling, greywater, stormwater capture, desalination. All of them have potential, but it’s going to be a long time before any of them start producing the quantities of water we need for a city of nearly 4,000,000 people. We can’t afford to squander water, but that’s exactly what our elected officials are doing. By allowing rampant, reckless development with no real planning behind it, they’re giving away water that we don’t have.

I am not saying we should put a halt to development. What we need to do immediately is make a realistic assessment of how much water will be consumed by all projects currently under construction, all those that are going through the approval process, and all those that are still in the planning stages. Then we need to set priorities, approving only projects that will truly benefit the people of LA, instead of continually greenlighting high-end high rises and luxury hotels.

Next we need to make a realistic assessment of how much water we can expect to have, and this is a good time to do so. The DWP is currently working on its 2015 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP), and a draft will be released for public comment early next year. We need to make sure that the UWMP accurately reflects our current situation. The Plan will certainly emphasize conservation, recycling and stormwater capture, and that’s all to the good. But it also needs to reflect the fact that every source of water the City has depended on for a hundred years has been severely compromised.

Finally, we need to make sure that our elected officials acknowledge these limitations and start doing some real planning for the future. These days the people at City Hall are fervently, proudly, recklessly pro-development. That’s nothing new for LA politicians. This City was built by out-of-control, irresponsible development. Except for a few brief periods when voter backlash scared the people at City Hall, developers have almost always gotten their way. But that’s got to end. We can’t afford to keep doing business as usual.

We don’t have the water.

WP 50 River