Is Los Angeles Next To Run Out Of Water?

Los Angeles Water Shortage

There’s an expression in Afrikaans, n boer maak a plan, which roughly translates to “a farmer makes a plan.” According to Carey Buchanan, a lapsed Afrikaner now living in England, it’s a typically stoic South African sentiment about perseverance—and apparently, one that encapsulates how many Cape Town residents are feeling on the eve of Day Zero.


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That’s the day when Cape Town, South Africa is predicted to become the first major city in the world to run out of water. It’s coming sooner than you’d think.

It’s a name that conjures all sorts of 28 Days Later connotations, but it’s more a reality than a dystopian fiction. Day Zero is expected to fall on May 11, 2018—having already moved up (and then pushed back again) from the originally-estimated April 21 date.

Cape Town isn’t alone. Mexico City, Tokyo, and Delhi top the list of the five most water-stressed cities, according to the Nature Conservancy’s first global survey of megacitieswater sources.

Los Angeles comes in ninth globally. Nationally? We’re No. 1.

So, does Cape Town portend Los Angeles’s fate in a few short years?

In a word, no. But as Kelly Sanders, environmental scientist and assistant professor of environmental and civil engineering at USC, says, “the devil’s in the details.” LA’s water portfolio, what scientists call the sources from where a city gets its water, is diverse and well-funded, but experts say the city can do more to accommodate for future climate change and population growth.


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Contrary to popular wisdom, LA is not a desert. Some may mourn the forever tainted words of Kim Gordon or Joan Didion, but this is good news. It means that it’s easier for LA to save water, because there’s more water falling in the surrounding mountains, more natural groundwater sources, and more chance that rainwater can be absorbed back into the water table when it does rain, in contrast to desert cities like Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

In the case of Cape Town, which actually has a Mediterranean biome like LA, environmental scientist and co-author of the Nature Conservancy survey Julie Padowski says the water crisis there has to do in part with a boom in population and poor drought planning.

Los Angeles, in contrast, has a strong culture of reuse. The city captures and recharges an average of 200,000 acre-feet of water annually, in addition to the 40,000 to 60,000 acre-feet of water recharged in local basins each year.

If Los Angeles does have some naturally-occurring water sources, why are we so water-scarce?

We’re bad at holding onto the water we do have. Most of our water is lost either through poorly-maintained infrastructure or natural phenomena, such as evaporation. When we use approximately 12 million gallons of water annually, on average, every drop counts.

Take the LA River, for example. In the 1930s, as hard as it is to believe, the river was overflowing. After a series of devastating floods, the Army Corps of Engineers was called in to pave it. The Corps rebuilt and bored out certain sections, paved it all the way to the ocean, and the flooding stopped.

Ironically, the concrete that saved people’s homes from a watery destruction in the early 20th century is now contributing to the problem that puts LA so high on the global list of water-scarce cities today. About 80 percent of LA’s water now flows out to the Santa Monica Bay.

Another reason for our water-scarcity is, of course, climate change and drought. Los Angeles isn’t a desert, but it’s also not drought-impervious.

Climate change accounts for the significant drop in local rainfall and dwindling snowpack in the surrounding mountains over the past few years, and both those sources eventually become potable water.

As of last month, snowpack was one-fourth of normal levels across California, and while LA on average receives about 12 to 13 inches of rainfall a year, the last five years (excluding 2017) only saw an average of approximately 8 inches.

LA’s sheer size and density also seriously impact water supply.

According to the authors of the Nature Conservancy survey, the economic development that accompanies urbanization not only means that people use more water per-capita, for things like washing machines, dishwashers, and so on, but that they’re also more likely to be drawing the water to run their machines from municipal supplies, rather than from independent sources like wells.

All of these factors have led to the high level of water imports that LA relies on today.

More than 80 percent of LA’s water is imported, making it the largest cross-basin transferer of all the large cities in the world, pulling approximately 8,895 million liters of water from the Colorado River Basin every day.

Despite our reliance on importation, “the city of Los Angeles is pursuing one of the most progressive models for local water management for any other large city,” Sanders says.

When she’s not teaching or leading research at USC, Sanders serves on the advisory board of OneWater, one of LA’s major initiatives to address—and engineer—water sustainability in the future. The name gives away its major innovation: the idea that all urban water should be managed together, as one.

“Traditionally, [different types of water sources] were managed in silos,” Sanders says. “LA is working to change the paradigm of water management by managing them together.”

As important as sustainable management of water is at the civic level, an informed culture of how individuals, from contractors to children, treat water is vital.

Developers are using new technology to conserve water, from installing efficient sprinklers and drought-tolerant landscaping, to expanding the use of water meters and upgrading an estimated 10 million toilets that were installed in houses and offices before the 1990s.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti knows that importing water is not a sustainable solution.

In January, city officials began restoring the polluted San Fernando Valley aquifer, just one part of the mayor’s plan to step up treatment and recycling of wastewater to reduce imports of water by 50 percent by 2035.

“Water is our most precious resource, and creating a more resilient, self-reliant Los Angeles means increasing the amount of water we source locally,” Garcetti told Environmental Protection. “The decontamination of this historic groundwater basin is a critical step in achieving our goal to reduce our dependence on imported water.”

The solutions to LA’s water scarcity are varied but complementary, which as Padowski points out, is its strength—the repairs and decontamination of existing infrastructure alongside more creative, or expensive techniques.

“LA has developed all these different ways of getting water,” she says. When LA experiences such stresses as drought or failing infrastructure, the diversity of water sources “makes the system much more resilient, because it gives you a much better chance of having water available at any given time.”


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