What Happens in L.A. If California's Drought Continues?

We know the drought in California is bad. It seems like it hasn't rained in forever — until a sprinkling hit Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley today and a rainstorm hammered parts of the Inland Empire. That storm and possible thunder will die out fast, however. Gardens are withering. And on the Internet, Californians have criticized the viral ALS ice bucket challenge in light of the parched conditions.

Yet here in Los Angeles, the water keeps on running from our faucets as if there's no problem. Utility rates also haven't jumped that much since the drought began in 2012.

See also: "Hey L.A., it's Time to Raise the Price of Water." 

One reason L.A. is acting this way is because residents have a good track record of conserving water. Seriously. L.A. has the lowest per capita water consumption among U.S. urban areas with populations of more than 1 million.

A Mar Vista lawn, left, was ripped out and planted with a low-water garden, right.
A Mar Vista lawn, left, was ripped out and planted with a low-water garden, right.

Those bragging rights are largely thanks to government rebates, some of which have been given out for decades, to install low-water toilets, shower heads, washing machines and sprinklers. The city also hands out fat rebates to encourage a booming L.A. trend — ripping out lawns to plant low-water gardens. 

But before we pat ourselves on the back, Angelenos should remember that 2013 was the city's driest in 118 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Statewide, the California Farm Water Coalition estimates that $7.48 billion and 20,000 agriculture jobs have been lost due to the drought. And climatologists say the chances for a much hoped-for El Nino wet season this fall or winter have dropped from 80 to 65 percent.

It's possible SoCal will be stuck with this drought through 2015. Yet L.A.'s metropolitan reservoirs are only stocked with enough emergency water to last about 12 months.

This raises the question: What happens in L.A. if the drought continues much longer?

David Nahai, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and chairman of the California Regional Water Board, offers a few prognostications.

“First off, I don't think this is a hypothetical at all.” he told L.A. Weekly. “Even beyond the current drought, climate change is upon us. We have to adapt.” 

Nahai predicts:

—water rate increases from the DWP
—more DWP water cops
—DWP warnings and citations up to $600 if you wash your car, spray down a driveway or water during hottest parts of the day. And restaurants can't serve water unless requested. 

(To avoid a huge ticket from DWP, see L.A.'s Water Ordinance Fact Sheet)

Water rate hikes seem likely despite Mayor Eric Garcetti's promise, in his April State of the City address, that DWP rates would not rise in 2014.

As the Los Angeles Register reports, it turns out that Garcetti was only referring to the base water rates. Other fees in your DWP water bill – like charges for imported water — have already been hiked an average of $6.41 per consumer between July and September.

Nahai believes the increases are necessary for L.A. to secure its water future.

Beyond taking conversation measures and spreading awareness, he says the city needs to get serious about investing in infrastructure to improve waste-water management, rainfall capture and underground storage.

Because L.A. imports 89 percent of its water – tapping resources that are already under stress, including the Colorado River, Owens Valley and Sacramento Delta – the city is far from water independent.

One way L.A. might maximize its supply is to clean up the San Fernando Valley Aquifer, a huge underground body of water that's contaminated with a toxic plume, some of it created by the Valley's aerospace and defense manufacturing dating to the 1940s. (See map, below.)

San Fernando Valley's aquifer lies a few hundred feet belowground, in a sediment bowl with depths to 6,400 feet.
San Fernando Valley's aquifer lies a few hundred feet belowground, in a sediment bowl with depths to 6,400 feet.

“So that means there's a huge resource that we could use, but can't,” says Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who represents the state's 43rd District stretching from Hollywood north to the Angeles National Forest. “We're one of the few regions that isn't pumping our own groundwater.”

Gatto told the Weekly that recently he helped put together a $7.12 billion water bond which will appear on the statewide ballot November 4. If approved, $900 million would be used to clean contaminated groundwater, and Los Angeles politicians will aggressively lobby for funds for the San Fernando Valley aquifer.

Nahai, who also placed importance on cleaning the aquifer, stressed that the city needs to move now.

While more water cops, increased water rates and large municipal investments may feel like a thorn in the side now, Nahai says, “The cost of doing nothing will be much higher than the investments needed to secure our future.”

After all, it isn't just about surviving the current drought. Who knows what other curve balls climate change might throw our way? 


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