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Climate Change is Happening: Will L.A. Have Enough Water?

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broadous before courtesy of treepeople.png

Climate change can be a very disembodied concept for many Angelenos. I know from personal experience, but a spate of events has reminded me that, though I avoid it, the reality is clear and present.

A United Nations landmark report on climate change, released in September, puts the blame squarely on mankind for the drastic change in temperatures and weather disturbances over the past few decades. The report gives a 95 percent confidence that humans are the main cause of global warming.

More than just disappearing polar ice caps, climate change has far-reaching consequences, such as increased rates of allergies, diseases, and even death, as Los Angeles writer Linda Marsa explains in her new book, "Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health -- and how we can save ourselves."

It also means there will be water shortages in Los Angeles, unless we become more efficient with our supply. Right now only 11 percent of the Los Angeles's water comes from local sources, and 1 percent is recycled. Fifty two percent comes from the Colorado River through the Metropolitan Water District. Thirty six percent comes from the Eastern Sierra Nevadas through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Unfortunately, the Colorado River is currently the country's most endangered river from being so overused, and all but one of the Sierra's 24 major watersheds are impaired.

"Imported water has a high risk for disruption. Local water means a higher confidence in supply," said Jonathan Parfey, Executive Director of Climate Resolve, at the One Water Leadership Summit, held in Downtown Los Angeles this fall. "It makes a lot of sense to be more resilient as a city and take advantage of our local supply."

TLA's Reliance on importer water has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years. Courtesy of LADWP.
TLA's Reliance on importer water has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years. Courtesy of LADWP.
Only 11% of our water comes from local water sources today. The LADWP hopes to increase that figure to 37% local water by 2035. Photo courtesy of LADWP
Only 11% of our water comes from local water sources today. The LADWP hopes to increase that figure to 37% local water by 2035. Photo courtesy of LADWP

The summit gathered water advocates from all parts of the country to discuss the ways to implement a "one water" management policy for water sustainability. Rather than dealing with water in separate streams -- from groundwater supply, from storms, from urban runoff -- the new approach encourages a holistic approach, making sure that every drop doesn't remain polluted and flushed out to the ocean, but cleaned and returned to the city system. It is the EPA's Reduce, Recycle, Re-use tenet in water form.

Parfey points out that higher temperatures mean both increased storm intensities pouring down the same amount of water more violently, such as the Colorado floods, and hotter temperatures that will dry up the soil and affect water gathering.

Such ecological realities have spurred local water agencies and community groups to take a second look at their programs and infrastructure projects, exploring options for water management features that could help Los Angeles be more self-reliant on their local water supplies. The results are sometimes inspiring.

At Hillery T. Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, students were sometimes hampered from attending because of periodic flooding. TreePeople and the L.A. Department of Water and Power worked with the school's students to actually identify solutions and implement them. The school was re-jiggered to capture and treat stormwater, which recharged the local groundwater, while preventing floods. The school got a new underground filtration system, swale, permeable ground cover, and trees that replaced 30 percent of the asphalt.

Hillery T. Broadus Elementary School in Pacoima after the retrofit | Photo courtesy of TreePeople
Hillery T. Broadus Elementary School in Pacoima after the retrofit | Photo courtesy of TreePeople

In South Los Angeles, a wetland park emerged in one of the most underserved parts of the city. Named after termed-out City Councilwoman Jan Perry, the South L.A. Wetlands repurposed a bus and rail yard and turned it into a green space that also cleans stormwater and supplies the Los Angeles River. The project was funded by Proposition O, a clean water bond approved by voters in 2004.

Though less moving, city programs have begun to address the silos within the water management community. Adopted in 2006, the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) brought together different city departments to squeeze every avenue for water capture. It won the 2011 Clean Water Prize from the U.S. Water Alliance. Big and small projects were proposed and, more importantly, followed through. The city's Low Impact Ordinance was finalized, giving developers clear guidelines on how to mitigate urban runoff and capture more stormwater; the Tillman Plant increased their water recycling capacity; and a rainwater harvesting project was piloted.

Unfortunately, the controversial ARBOR study makes no plans to add water capture or filtration infrastructure, despite making drastic changes to the Los Angeles River ecology. It's an opportunity that's been alluded to by Kirsten James of Heal the Bay, and environmental writer and activist Jenny Price.

It's clear that Los Angeles is getting ready for climate change, though how fast we can change our habits is still unclear. Though it is a relief to see our local agencies working on this issue, Los Angeles needs its residents' support, which could, like the IRP, take the form of small to large actions -- little things like turning off the water as we brush our teeth, to bigger projects such as supporting water projects despite the cost.

If it's still unclear that we all need to take action, perhaps the Guardian's recently released interactive, "How hot will it get in my lifetime?" would help you visualize just how much life could change in the near future.

Top: Hillery T. Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima before the retrofit. Photo courtesy of TreePeople.

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