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.

Zero.

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.

uwmp@ladwp.com

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.

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.

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