As California confronts its latest chapter of water woes, some residents actively seek new alternatives in water conservation—some as simple as home water collection, others as controversial as desalinized ocean water. Even if the state can successfully put these cutting-edge ideas into practice, are they enough to survive our worst drought in decades?
- Written bySteven Nereo
During non-drought years, most of us living in the Southland never question the long journey our water takes from sky to faucet, as the simple idea that rain brings water is ample explanation for most. But when the rain slows and the reservoirs shrink, a magnifying-glassed examination of our water’s history, sources and use begins to occupy the minds of many concerned Californians. What comes to light with closer inspection is a complex story that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.
Because to truly understand the scope of both the problems and solutions that are presented before us about our water concerns, we must first look back through the history of local water resources and recognize how it has influentially shaped the situation we find ourselves in today. For more than 100 years, the common fact that has never escaped this narrative is our overwhelming need for water and the creative—and sometimes controversial—solutions to attaining it.
As early as the beginning of the 1900s, Southern California had outgrown its local resources and began to look elsewhere to slake the thirst of its growing population. The immediate solution was a canal project managed by William Mulholland while he was head of the Los Angeles Water Department. Once completed in 1913, this massive canal flowed gravitationally out of Owens Valley southward into Los Angeles.
While this extensive flow of water solved the Southland’s problems, the Los Angeles Aqueduct simultaneously created new ones for Owens Valley. By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from Owens Lake that it greatly affected the local farmer’s ability to grow food.
In 1924 the locals were so frustrated with the diversion of water that 700 of them occupied an aqueduct control gate for four days and released all of the water back into Owens Lake. This act of civil disobedience was the pinnacle moment for what is now referred to as The California Water Wars.
The locals’ resistance continued sporadically for the next three years, but economic hardship in the region—as well as the failure of the local bank that was supporting their efforts—caused the rebelling farmers to eventually run out of leverage and backing. Los Angeles took advantage of the ensuing confusion to further secure purchases of land and water rights, and by the 1930s Los Angeles owned 90% of the water in Owens Valley. The result of these actions was the secured resources for the continued growth of Los Angeles, though at the expense of completely decimating the agricultural industry in the valley.
By the start of World War II, the city had completed the Mono Basin Project, which increased the reach of the aqueduct even further north into the Eastern Sierras. With the escalation in flow came the resources to sustain Los Angeles’ transformation into one of the country’s largest war production centers—an industry directly credited with significantly helping usher in a population of 2 million by 1950.
As the 20th century progressed, the population of Los Angeles and its water projects intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. More people created the need for more water—a continuous cycle that still exists today.
Presently the Owens Valley aqueducts combine with water from Northern California and the Colorado River to provide our 19 million residents with the water supplies we require to sustain our needs. Again it is this precariously intertwined system of water importation that allows our city to exist at the size it is today, because local natural water resources could in no way handle our needs.
And those needs are unnaturally great considering our excessive desire to live beyond our irrigational means. For the ultimate example of this excessiveness we can look to the golf courses that lushly carpet Los Angeles’ eastern playground of Palm Springs.
It is estimated by Audubon International that a single course in those desert conditions requires 1 million gallons of water a day. To put this number in perspective, that is the amount of water an average family of four would consume in a year.
Even closer to home, we witness most Angelenos of all economic backgrounds refusing to make a change in their landscaping and watering practices. Unnaturally opulent yards of non-drought-tolerant grasses signal a common refusal by many to make any adjustments to their standard of living, even in the face of the dire drought emergency we are facing.
Conversely, only 20% of California’s water resources go to residents, golf courses and parks. The other 80% is used to water and quench America’s food. From almonds to cattle—and everything in between—the reality is that our regional water crisis is a national issue.
Almost daily different foods are fingered as the new pervasive culprit. The possibility has been sheepishly suggested that California may no longer be the ideal agricultural state, but the economics of moving elsewhere would be devastating to Central Valley farmers.
Fortunately there are other ideas presented that could save the need for such disastrous solutions. One creative answer is for the homeowner to make an immediate impact is rainwater harvesting. This entails setting up a collection system on the roof with a large enough tank for storing the water. Such a system can bring a Los Angeles home a half-gallon of water for every inch of rain on a square foot of roof.
A single Palm Springs course requires 1 million gallons of water a day; the same amount of water an average family of four would consume in a year.
For example, an average rainfall year of 15 inches would net a 2,000-square-foot roofed home 15,000 gallons of water. Unfortunately this amount is only a proverbial drop in the bucket of what an average home uses each year, but it would be enough to water gardens and wash clothes while helping alleviate the bimonthly water bill.
The downside of rainwater harvesting includes the high initial cost of installing a collection system and tank. Also, the quality of urban rainwater for drinking purposes is questionable, which means the water’s use is limited. And there’s the obvious problem that without rain there will be no collection, so this solution is really dependent on returning to the more consistent cycle of wetter Southern California winters.
Another often-discussed idea for California’s continued water problem is the controversial desalinization—an obvious thought considering we live directly next to the world’s largest reservoir of water. In order to desalinate ocean water, it is pulled into the desalinization plant and pushed through a membrane in a reverse osmosis process that creates drinkable water by removing the salt and other undrinkable sediments—very similar to a household filtration system.
The detractors of desalinization are heavily critical of the intake of water of this process, as well as the brine solution that is returned to sea. On the intake side, sea life can often be pulled in with the heavy suction of the plant’s water harvesting and get caught against the pre-filtering screens that exist on this end of the process.
The problems with the discharge begin before subjecting the water to the reverse osmosis process, when it is pretreated with chemicals to aid the separation of water from undesired elements. Because of this process, the already extremely salty return flow also contains harmful elements that environmentalists critically question being introduced into the delicate marine ecosystems that line our shores.
Another problem with desalinization is the plant’s questionable usefulness during non-drought years. Put simply, when the rains are adequately filling the reservoirs, it’s hard to justify the expense and energy it takes to make drinkable water.
Santa Barbara has experienced this first-hand, building a multi-million-dollar plant during the drought 20 years ago, which never made it past the testing phase before the rains returned and the project was mothballed. Currently the city is looking at spending another $40 million in upgrades to get the plant online—with no guarantee that the same fate won’t befall the project once again.
Unfortunately, until desalinization becomes cheaper and more environmentally friendly, there will always be detractors who believe almost anything is better. One controversial solution that has many hesitant on “yuck factor” alone is direct potable reuse, or more easily explained as the act of cleaning sewage to extract drinkable water. As absurd as this may sound to some, the reality is that 200 wastewater treatment plants already discharge effluent into the Colorado River, so cleaning water isn’t as far removed from current practices as most would imagine.
If nothing else, non-potable reuse could help alleviate the use of drinking water for agriculture and livestock. Israel currently leads the world in reuse by treating 80% of all the country’s sewage for irrigation and other non-potable uses.
In 2012 a U.S. National Research Council report came to the conclusion that for drinking purposes, the risk of exposure to certain microbial and chemical contaminants wasn’t any more likely with reuse water—and in some cases it was actually less. Of course more studies and community outreach will be done on the subject, but it is quite possible that in the near future reclaimed water mixed in with current sources will flow from many Californian taps.
Currently weather forecasters are feeling optimistic for an El Niño event this year based on the water temperatures of the oceans in the Southern Hemisphere. But as always with weather, nothing is promised or guaranteed.
The good news is that California has a long history of solving water problems creatively, and the promise of upcoming technology and ideas seems to indicate that this ingenuity will continue. Even when the rain returns, this drought is a reminder of the preparations we must take to meet the demands of a continually growing population.
As is often the case, nothing stands alone as the single answer to our water problems, and what will benefit us the most will be some combination of them all. Individually we can all do our part by remembering that every bit of conservation helps, while taking advantage of the programs in place that help us conserve. One example is Los Angeles County’s Cash for Grass program that offers $1 to $2 per square foot to remove your lawn and install water-efficient landscaping.
As a community we should all take responsibility in understanding the limitations of our water system while educating ourselves on available solutions. We must also make a concerted effort not to forget our current difficulties when wetter times return. It is up to all of us to be prepared and take the necessary steps to continue the water use and solutions narrative that has shaped our home, our history and our lives. For more water saving tips, visit https://www.serviz.com/top-ten-drought-tips