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.

Lots of Questions, But No Answers

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Last year I was elected to a seat on the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council. It’s been interesting. On the one hand, I’ve made some good friends, and I have to say I’m impressed by the intelligence and dedication of the council members. On the other hand, it seems like the meetings never stop and the job requires sifting through endless amounts of information. It can be totally exhausting. But it’s gotta be done, because there are important issues that need to be addressed, and we can’t rely on city officials or developers to do the job properly.

Take the 8150 Sunset Blvd. project. The HHWNC held a public meeting a few days ago to give stakeholders a chance to ask questions of the developer reps regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report. To prepare for the meeting, I had to read as much as I could of the DIER, which runs about a thousand pages. It was a mind-numbing experience, but I’m glad I took the time. There were a number of areas where I felt the information contained in the document was inadequate, but the most troubling omission was in the area of fire safety.

The LA Fire Department assessment states clearly that the 4 hydrants on-site have to provide a flow of 9,000 gallons per minute (gpm) for any of the high-rise alternatives. But the water main currently serving the site can only provide 3,750 gpm. Obviously, the water infrastructure has to be upgraded. So I went looking for specifics about how this was going to be done. The developer apparently has assumed responsibility for completing upgrades that will meet the needs for the project’s daily water usage, but they’ll need to do a whole lot more to satisfy the LAFD code requirements for a high-rise structure.

For projects like this, the DWP has to complete a Service Advisory Request, basically assessing the developer’s needs and stating what needs to be done to satisfy the City’s requirements. The DEIR references SAR Number 38449, approved in July 2013, in a footnote, and says it’s contained in Appendix G. But it’s not in the appendix.

So I thought I should contact the DWP to see if I could get hold of the SAR. On Monday I sent an e-mail to a DWP liaison explaining that the document was referenced in the DEIR, and asking if I could get a copy. The liaison wrote a nice e-mail back saying that he’d be happy to set up a meeting between DWP staff and the HHWNC in order to talk about the community’s water needs. I wrote back saying that I’d love to set up such a meeting, but I’d really like to get a copy of the SAR. That was on Thursday morning. I still haven’t gotten a response.

In the meantime, the HHWNC had it’s meeting where we got to ask developer reps questions about the DEIR. When my turn came, I mentioned that the LAFD code required a 9,000 gpm fire-flow for this kind of high-rise, and asked if there was a specific plan to satisfy this requirement. I also asked about the missing SAR. I may not be quoting them exactly, but basically their answer was, “We invite you to submit your comment on the DEIR.”

Call me paranoid, but I’m getting kind of concerned. We’re not talking about a minor disagreement on landscaping or a few extra cars on the road. This is a basic public safety issue. The LAFD requirements are clearly stated in the DEIR. Any of the high-rise alternatives for this project need a 9,000 gpm fire-flow. If there’s a plan in place to achieve this, that’s great. I’d love to see it. I’d also like to see the SAR that the DWP prepared back in 2013.

Compounding my concern are recollections of the water main rupture that flooded Sunset last year. I’m sure you all remember it, too, because it got plenty of media attention. In October, Wehoville ran an article on the flooding, and they quoted an e-mail from Steven Cole, of the DWP’s Water Distribution Division, to the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association. In his e-mail, Cole said that the DWP was looking at replacing a 4 mile portion of a pipeline running along Sunset. He also said they were still analyzing the best way to accomplish that task. It makes me wonder if the DWP can guarantee that the water infrastructure needed to satisfy the LAFD requirements will be in place before 2018, when 8150 Sunset is supposed to be completed. Here’s the link to the article on Wehoville, in case you want to take a look at it.

LADWP Reveals Plans

Does anybody else see cause for concern here? I’d feel a whole lot better if if could see the DWP’s SAR. I’ve asked them for it twice. I’m still waiting.

We Need to Talk about Water

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Recently I posted on Mayor Garcetti’s call for Angelenos to reduce water consumption by twenty percent. As a follow up, I’d like to draw your attention to an article posted by Jack Humphreville on CityWatch. The thrust of the article is that the Mayor’s creation of a Water Cabinet is an attempt to create policy without input from citizens.

Humphreville makes some excellent points. Certainly, given Garcetti’s record, we should be concerned about whether the City will shape its water policy in an open and transparent manner. There’s no question that the DWP will be raising rates significantly in coming years. To some degree this is necessary. Our water infrastructure needs to be upgraded, and we also need to invest in groundwater clean-up. But citizens must be involved in this discussion. A link to Humphreville’s article is below. It’s well worth reading.

Can We Afford the Mayor’s Mandate?

And here’s the link to the Mayor’s Executive Directive 5, which lays out all the measures he wants Angelenos to take to address the water shortage. Many of these steps are reasonable and necessary. It’s the creation of the Water Cabinet that’s worrisome. In LA, too many decisions are already made by insiders, behind closed doors. The Mayor often talks about how we all need to be involved in shaping the city’s future. I wish I could believe he really meant it.

Executive Directive 5

When the Well Runs Dry

John Ferraro Building (LA Department of Water and Power)

John Ferraro Building (LA Department of Water and Power)

Last week Mayor Garcetti asked Los Angeles residents to cut their water usage by twenty percent. Even though he was basically echoing the governor’s message to all Californians, this was an important step. Angelenos have slowly been climbing on board the conservation bandwagon, but we need to do more.

Over eighty percent of the water we use in Los Angeles comes from outside the city’s boundaries. The only way LA has been able to grow as large as it has is by siphoning water from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. But due to the current drought, these sources are drying up. In addition, many of the wells in the San Fernando Valley are contaminated, and cleaning them up will be a long, costly endeavor. Here’s a sobering article from the American Society of Civil Engineers web site.

LA to Treat Contaminated Groundwater for City Use

Not only do we need to conserve water in the present, we need to plan for water usage in the future. The City should take a hard look at current requirements for new projects, and ask if there are ways to build structures that are more efficient. In general, we need to look at how future development will impact our water resources. The City needs to consider the cumulative impact of proposed projects on our dwindling supply.

Restaurants in particular should come under special scrutiny, since they consume a great deal of water in their day to day operations. There are a number of ways they can reduce their consumption. Replacing water cooled refrigeration units with air cooled units is a good start. They should also be required to use low volume spray nozzles for washing food. Composting waste instead of using a garbage disposal will also reduce water consumption. I know running a restaurant is difficult, and all these things cost money. Possibly the City could require new restaurants to take these steps, but allow existing restaurants to make the changes over time. And in the long term, adopting these practices will actually save restaurant owners money.

The Department of Water and Power building is a classic modern structure from the sixties, designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates. One of the key elements of the design is the reflecting pool that borders the site. It’s not just beautiful, it’s functional, having been integrated into the system that cools the offices. But it also plays an important symbolic role. Surrounding the Department of Water and Power with an expansive reflecting pool makes a statement about how an area with limited water resources was transformed into a major city, known for its lush green lawns and sparkling swimming pools.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the Los Angeles we’re living in today.

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What Price Water?

LAR Headworks

A few months ago a friend and I were going down Forest Lawn Drive near Griffith Park. While she drove I was gazing out the window, and I was surprised to see a huge construction site spread out across the bed of the LA River. I hadn’t heard anything about a project planned for that area, and at first I was alarmed. What the hell were they doing to the river?

LAR Site Hills

After investigating a little, I found out that this was the Headworks Reservoir, and it involves the construction of two huge underground containers which will hold 110 million gallons of water. The idea is that when the project is completed it will provide drinking water to area residents who are now served by the Silverlake reservoir complex. In large part this effort was spurred by new rules handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency. Open reservoirs, like those in the Silverlake complex, are subject to contamination from many different sources. The Headworks project will comply with the new EPA rules and provide safe drinking water for thousands of Angelenos. Aside from improved water quality, the deal includes a 4-megawatt hydroelectric plant to provide more power for the city. And if that’s not enough, once the tanks are completed there are plans to turn the surface area into a park which would include riparian wetlands, bike paths and equestrian trails.

Sound cool? Well, the finished project probably will be pretty nice. The DWP had to find some way to comply with the new EPA standards. And the park/wetlands component will surely be a big improvement over the sterile concrete channel that exists now. But…

There are some questions about the cost of the project and the process that was followed to make it happen. The City of LA initially said the price tag would be $230 million. That figure has now risen to $319 million. Those who follow local news already know that the DWP has been accused more than once of scamming its customers. The fact that the tab for Headworks has gone up almost 40 percent is definitely troubling. There are also questions about why the City chose this option when there were other, cheaper proposals on the table. If you’re a DWP ratepayer, you’ll want to read Jack Humphreville’s breakdown of the project on CityWatch.

Is Headworks Project Another Example of Corruption?

For a general overview of the project, here’s a summary from the DWP.

Headworks Reservoir Fact Sheet

Bottom line, the project is happening. And I do believe it’s a good thing over all. But it bothers me to think that we’re getting ripped off by the DWP once again. I’m glad Garcetti is pushing for an audit of the agency’s shady non-profits, but I’d really like to see a full audit of the DWP. We deserve to know where our money is going.

LAR Concrete Horizon