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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Water Woes Force LA’s Hunt for Liquid Gold

(CN) - California's order to cut urban water use by 25 percent after four years of drought has Los Angeles giving serious thought to how it uses water - and where to find it.

Nearly a year after California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the statewide reductions in a meadow in the Sierras that should have been covered in snow but wasn't, cities up and down the state have been scrambling to tame residents' water use to meet caps ranging from 10 to 36 percent compared with what they used in 2013.

Under Brown's order, the Golden State's cumulative water savings must be at 25 percent by the end of February. For LA to meet their goals - given the shrinking supplies from its traditional sources in the Sierra and Colorado River - strategies must be supplemented with greater conservation and reprocessing efforts.

While there have been plans for alternative water sourcing in LA, most have either stalled or failed to materialize. But experts are optimistic that new tactics will provide needed relief.

"I'm seeing for the very first time that the region is really looking at trying to get closer to self-sufficiency using local water supplies," Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told Courthouse News. "There's been a lot of rhetoric in the past 15 years, but now we're starting to see a lot more action."

Gold explained that the concept of water management in LA has changed, particularly with regard to sewage runoff.

"We should be capturing that water and treating it to a higher level. If you had said that 20 years ago, people would have thought you were crazy," Gold said.

Yet roughly 33 percent of the city's water comes from the LA Aqueduct, which draws from the Owens River, reservoirs along the eastern portion of the southern Sierras and the Mono Lake Basin.

Thanks to the drought, LA got roughly 20,000 acre-feet of water from the aqueduct in 2015, far less than the 200,000 acre-feet it typically receives. The city consumes between 500,000 and 600,000 acre-feet annually.

The Colorado River Aqueduct provides another 50 to 60 percent of LA's water - meaning the city gets just 7 to 17 percent of its water from groundwater and recycled sources.

Capitalizing on additional rain and snow from El Nino could provide temporary relief for the city, LA Department of Water and Power spokesperson Kim Hughes explained.

"At least 33 percent of all water for Southern California comes from the Sierra snowpack. Today there was the initial snow monitoring, and I think it was 136 percent of normal levels," Hughes said. "The Pacoima Dam area has been raised so that more storm water can be captured as runoff with rainfall."

Whether El Nino materializes to save California from drought, there is still a limit to how much water LA can draw from Mono Lake without harming migratory birds and the lake's delicate ecosystem. A State Water Resources Board order prevents the surface level of the lake from dropping below 6,377 feet - forcing the city to explore new ways to get water for its 3.9 million residents.

"When people look at 2015 historically, they will say this was the year of urban conservation," Gold said. "All water, regardless of source, should be seen as valuable."

These strategies are not unique to LA, as several other large cities have had to develop complex mechanisms and partnerships in to satisfy their industries and growing populaces.

One example is Beijing, whose virtual water consumption - the water used to produce food and goods - is one of the largest in the world.

The mean of virtual water imported by Beijing from other regions between 2000 and 2007 was estimated at 2.87 billion cubic meters, while the mean for its entire water usage over that time was roughly 3.68 billion cubic meters, according to a study released by Michigan State University researchers.

"Beijing is a severely water-stressed city. We found that virtual water contributes to over half of Beijing's water footprint," Jill Deines, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State who co-authored the study, said. "Long-distance connections with outside water sources help alleviate this stress."

This requires long-term partnerships with regions that have greater access to water, albeit not an endless supply. For instance, Beijing will continue to benefit from the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, which transports water from the Yangtze River in southern China to industrial cities in the north via canal systems.

"The project will increase 2020 physical water availability by 43 percent, compared to the 2001-2011 mean. On the flip side, these connections spread the impacts of Beijing's water demand to geographically distant regions," Deines said.

Borrowing conservation and recycling strategies from cities like LA can help Beijing avoid financial and environmental missteps, and modernize its approach to water management.

"China is doing what California did circa 1913 to the 1960s. Giant canals that are basically transporting water thousands of miles," Gold said. "So they're sort of repeating what we did in the past with California, and hopefully they'll follow into the future that we're headed toward."

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