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 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?