How Los Angeles Is Surviving California’s Drought

Policy reforms instituted years ago are paying dividends in an otherwise parched state

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, Calif.

My two-adult, one-toddler family uses about 140 gallons of water per day, according to our most recent bill from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. That might sound like a lot, but our usage is significantly below the average consumed by U.S. households our size.

It’s no accident. In recent decades, thanks largely to rebate programs, the residents and businesses of Southern California have made enormous strides in reducing their water consumption to levels unmatched in other parts of the state. The efforts—along with increased reservoir storage capacity in the region—have been so successful that this year, while California is in the midst of a severe drought, there are no plans to ration water in arid Southern California.

More than a dozen communities to the north, meanwhile, are in danger of running out of water completely in the next two to four months, according to state officials. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is only 12 percent its average for this time of year, and the State Water Project, a major supplier of water to communities throughout the state, recently announced it would halt deliveries until further notice. And Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency, making Southern California’s relative water abundance all the more remarkable.

Los Angeles and the surrounding communities are better positioned than their northern neighbors due to a combination of factors. My recently renovated two-bedroom house on L.A.’s east side is outfitted with a mandatory low-flow shower head and a dual flush toilet that uses about 25 percent of the water of older models. We have a small lawn, but the sprinkler system that keeps it green is set to turn on only after dark and only three times per week. These conditions, found in households throughout the region, are part of the reason why the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which includes Los Angeles, distributes 20 percent less water than it did in 1990, even though the population has grown by some five million people.

During the state’s last very dry period, from 1987 to 1991, it was a whole different world. L.A. residents faced mandatory water reduction orders and stiff financial penalties for not complying. “It was a real wake up call,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the water district.

Back then, with Southern California’s water supplies already stressed, Kightlinger says, “We knew we were not going to be adding new supplies, so we had to look at growth and how we would plan for it as a region. We had to reduce demand.”

In the years after that previous dry period, local water officials in Southern California worked with manufacturers to develop new toilet designs that used less water. They even gave away free, more efficient toilets. They began requiring homeowners to install low-flow showerheads and limit their lawn watering to times before sunrise and after sundown. Over the last 20 years, according to Kightlinger, the water district has invested nearly $333 million in rebate programs to pay Southern California residents and companies for making home and business upgrades that cut down on water use. There are rebates for installing high-efficiency washing machines and smart sprinkler systems that are responsive to weather and plant conditions. Residents can get paid for installing rain barrels and tearing up grass in favor of drought-resistant plants.

But water conservation isn’t the whole picture. Southern California has also increased its water storage capacity 14-fold since 1990, Kightlinger says. Right now, the water district has about three million acre feet of water on hand (an acre foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land in one foot of water). “If it stopped raining everywhere in the West, we still have a year and half of water supply,” Kightlinger says.

Still, Southern California could do even more, says Madelyn Glickfeld, director of the water resources group at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “We spent a huge amount of money to store this water. But it shouldn’t be that we can use it wastefully because we have it stored,” she says. “Particularly in a drought like this, there should be restrictions. You can’t just say we’ll draw out our reservoirs until they’re dry and hope it rains.”

Glickfeld points out that the water district rebate programs, while impressive, are still a small fraction of the money spent transporting water from other regions to Southern California. “We know about the reliability and cost problems of bringing water from other places,” Glickfeld says. “We could do a heck of a lot more with local resources.”

Moves Glickfeld would like to see include more water recycling within Southern California, installation of permeable pavement that allows more surface water to stay in the ground and systems to charge Southern Californians high rates for water used purely on landscaping.

As previous dry spells accelerated efforts to increase conservation and storage capacity, Glickfeld says she hopes California’s current drought will spur officials throughout the state to take to reduce consumption further. Southern California, she says, “ is so far ahead of Northern California in taking good care of water and using it carefully. The Central Valley doesn’t even have water meters.”

In that farming region of California, where one-third of all jobs are tied to agriculture, local officials are bracing for an increase in unemployment and the prospect of fields being left fallow this year.

“This is a drought that is incomprehensible,” Glickfeld says, “But the good outcome is that we might finally do the job we should be doing.”


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