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

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.