With El Niño finally starting to drench California, barely a day goes by without a news story covering it. Yesterday’s Marketplace had an in-depth report on the winter rains in Los Angeles that featured many of my former colleagues from my time in Los Angeles working on water issues.
It’s a great piece and is well worth the seven minutes it will take you to listen to it. It argues that while LA was engineered to prevent a repeat of the 1930s floods by flushing water to the ocean , it is now time to re-engineer the city to capture rain and get it back into the groundwater so that we can re-use it.
It’s hard to argue with the desire to recharge the aquifer. Not only does it bolster local water supplies, but it prevents ocean pollution. There are many groups working on this, foremost among them the City and County of Los Angeles and their non-profit partner, TreePeople.
But the opening of the story repeated a line makes me cringe. Namely that when water flows to the Pacific Ocean it represents a “colossal waste.”
It’s in stark contrast to the news reports of the winter rains up in the Bay Area. Here rainfall also runs to the Pacific Ocean. But when it’s covered in a story the reporter is more likely to discuss how it provides the much needed pulses of fresh water that rejuvenates rivers and stimulates the salmon to return.
To oversimplify it. In northern California environmentalists fight to keep water in creeks so it can flow to the ocean. While in southern California environmentalists fight to infiltrate water into the aquifer so that it does not flow to the ocean.
Even in Los Angeles there are remnant wetlands and natural bottom creeks that need the pulses of fresh water brought about by winter rains to survive. The recently restored Malibu wetlands is one example. And a stones throw from LAX is the Ballona wetlands that is in desperate need of restoration.
So yes, we need to capture more water and return it to the aquifer. But even in Los Angeles we need to acknowledge it benefits the streams, rivers, and wildlife when rainwater flows to the ocean. It’s not waste! It’s part of the natural order that I am hopeful will be restored over the coming decades as Los Angeles re-engineers its water system.