California’s Water Future

California-Storms-Los-Angeles-RiverSteady rains in Southern California this week fuel a fire in me. It’s painful to watch all this fresh water run out to the sea. The channeled Los Angeles River is like a water luge… chuting millions of gallons of desperately needed potable water out to sea.

I cringe at the thought of our region’s most limited natural resource – freshwater – be disposed of as an effluent. We conserve water daily – in our showers, toilets, sprinklers, car washes, etc. – and now just look at this macro water waste. One expert estimates that 163 billion gallons of fresh water slips through our water channels and to the sea each year, enough to fill a swimming pool for every home in America.

According to a January 2017 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, “Water management in California has always been challenging. The state’s variable climate is marked by long droughts and severe floods, with stark regional differences in water availability and demand.”  The state has built a massive network of storage and water conveyance systems to cope with this. But population growth and climate change exacerbate the challenge of matching water supply and demand.

In 2015, the California State Assembly formed the special Select Committee on Water Consumption and Alternative Sources. The Committee, in its final report, concluded that the state must undertake proactive measures – beyond conservation – to adjust to hotter climates and limited water sources.

Think of California’s water future. Many areas of the state are predicted to have a drier and drier climate. SoCal may well be parched, with more severe heat days and less water on tap. And yet our population grows. Where will our water come from? How much more conservation can be supplied? How about greywater recycling? Some say look west, to the Pacific Ocean. Poseidon and other firms are promoting desalinization. We have plenty of water… you just have to take the salt out.

My eyes return to the river. Yes, if we could only capture this rainwater that is chugging through our city, down massive storm channels, and store it in tanks, in reservoirs. Think how beneficial that amount of water would be.

Just as there is an energy storage revolution in the power sector, California’s water future also may be all about storage, at scales from the household level, to acres of spreading ponds for groundwater recharge. I love the work of TreePeople here in LA, storing water through a combination of urban forestry and community collection cisterns for storm water management. Andy Lipkis and his team there have been promoting a suite of storm water management tools: permeable surface, bioswales, cisterns, rain barrels, and infiltration basins that seep water in the aquifers below. The San Gabriel Coastal Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera is a 700 acres of land acquired to trap water after LA’s deadly flood of 1938. It’s a great model, capturing hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year before it runs to the sea. These works need to be scaled and replicated.

A massive storage scheme may well serve California, better than importing water. Water pipelines have been considered for California, and negotiated in preliminary form with a former Governor of Alaska, Wally Hickel. The plan was to build four, 14 foot in diameter, 1,400 mile pipelines from the mouth of either the Copper River or Stikine River in Alaska, to move 1.3 trillion gallons a year south to California. Analysts considered the $110 billion project as magnificent and complex, in an engineering, sense, as the Panama Canal, the Trans Alaskan oil pipeline, even the Chunnel.  Some advocated pulling an Artic iceberg south to LA. A few winters ago, some considered trucking snow from Boston over the Rockies to the West. These ideas all do seem crazy now as torrents of rainwater run to the sea in rapids.

But now – thanks to the record rains and snowpack — the impetus for long-term water planning may be over here in California, at least dampened. December was a record wet month. The snowpack in the Sierras is exceptional. Mammoth Mountain is getting too much snow to keep ski operations open. Reservoirs are full and now spilling water. The Governor has lifted water restrictions. And experts agree that the surface water drought is largely over. Most Californians now assume that we are out of the woods.

Yes, 2016 was exceptional in terms of precipitation. What a relief! But will the drought end in 2017? If the winter rains are decent, experts believe, the north will be in pretty good shape. But experts also point out that it will take several wet years for the south to recover, and significantly overdrawn groundwater basins in the Central Valley may take decades to come back. During droughts, farmers rely heavily on groundwater to make up for reduced surface-water supplies.  In turn, many small, poor rural communities have lost drinking water supplies as their wells have gone dry.

So good news: We’re trending in the right direction. The “cup” is certainly more full than empty, but California’s water woes are not over. Much of Southern California is still in extreme drought. LA’s rain is not washing away this problem. The Golden State needs to keep a clear eye on the future and to keep developing water supply and management systems that can sustain us all in a time of climate change.