Tag Archives: Stormwater

Mayor Garcetti’s bold drought move poses tough questions

Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced some bold initiatives for the city of Los Angeles to address the ongoing drought. In brief, he’s calling for a 20 per cent reduction in use of fresh water by 2017 and more ambitiously to curtail the purchase of imported water by  50 per by 2024.

The second number really got my attention as there’s a lot packed into that short sentence. Cutting the purchase of imported water by 50 per cent sounds bold. But it’s not as bold as it needs to be. And the twist is that the City actually owns a lot of the water it currently imports — water from the Owens Valley — hence it’s not being purchased.

Between 2006 and 2010, water from the Owens Valley provided 36% of LA’s water, compared to 52% from the Metropolitan Water District which imports water from the State Water Project and Colorado River.  The city already had a plan in place to cut MWD water to 24% by 2034. In effect Garcetti’s announcement accelerates the timeframe by a decade. That’s great. But look closer, and the original plan actually calls for an absolute increase in imports from the Owens Valley. It may make economic sense, but it doesn’t enhance resilience and doesn’t address the environmental issues the valley faces.

In the face of global warming, what is needed is to move the city to much greater reliance on utilizing water resources local to the region and its watersheds. If the city could get to the point where 50 per cent of its water came from truly local sources it would be much more resilient from both the ravages of global warming, and the disruption from the big earthquake when it strikes.

Currently the city imports 85 per cent of its water more than 100 miles. The three primary imports are from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the State Water Project), the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the LA Aqueduct and Owens Valley), and the Colorado River.  By and large all this water is the result of snow-melt. In the face of climate change this will diminish, threatening LA’s water supply and very future.

In addition, all pipes cross the San Andreas fault, some multiple times.  Modeling for a major quake on the San Andreas fault show that much of the disruption the region will feel is the result of loss of water as these pipes rupture. Can you imagine going without a shower for a week, let alone three months of a year? I can’t!

Coincidentally, it is estimated that about 50 per cent of water is used outside for landscaping. So getting to 50 per cent truly local water means the city could survive without those imports for a while. I think most people would be prepared to let their grass die so they could take shower.

Getting to 50 per cent truly local water is an ambitious goal for Los Angeles, but I believe it is the right goal. The city has the tools in place through its conservation programs, recycling programs, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. What’s needed now is to take the Mayor’s bold plan and amp it up a notch. Then Los Angele’s will truly be building sustainability and resiliency for the future.

Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles
Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles – how would these fare in an earthquake?

 

Survey for marine debris draws connection with Japan

Earlier this week, as the mercury hit 90 degrees by the beach, I headed out to Carbon Beach with another Heal the Bay staffer to conduct a marine debris survey – part of a west-coast wide effort by NOAA to monitor for debris from the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011 . Spoiler alert: I didn’t find any soccer balls with Japanese script.  But I did find an interesting connection to Japan and the early development of the beach.

Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach
Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach

If you’ve ever been to Carbon Beach in Malibu, you’ll know that it now has some of the most desirable real estate in the world (although if you’ve seen recent sea level rise projections you might question why!). As Melissa and I started to lay out our transect, collect GPS coordinates, measure the distance to the tide, and count trash, a young man walked down from one of the houses that flank the beach.  His wasn’t a massive mansion. Rather it was an older beach home that had been built by his grandparents in 1941.  When he heard what we were doing he paused and then started to share a short story about the history of the home. In 1941 no-one wanted to live on the beach — it was considered the front line of the Pacific theater as people scanned for Japanese planes headed in from the vast ocean. In fact, that house had been the fourth to be built on the beach.  A lot has changed since then. But once again we found ourselves walking the beach looking for signs of our Pacific neighbors. Only this time, they are our friends. It was a good reminder that Santa Monica Bay is part of the vast ocean network that connects us with people thousands of miles away. So what about the trash? The good news is we found very little. Carbon beach doesn’t have the massive storm drains that bring trash from the dense city to the ocean. But despite that we found it — tiny bits of plastic debris that could have come from any place in the world. Even Japan.

Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?
Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?

Reining in the Rain

[This is from a guest-blog I wrote for the LA Stormwater Program’s web-site, published April 22, 2014].

I’d been living in Los Angeles for about six months when a three-day storm hit back in February. I had begun to wonder what all the fuss was about stormwater. Could it really be that bad? Now I know the answer is yes—but not just for the pollution it causes.

I was delighted by the waterfalls that popped up in Topanga Canyon. I was saddened to see the torrent of trash flowing down Chautauqua into the ocean. But what really shocked me was when I learned that the three-day storm, in the middle of an historic drought, flushed enough water into the ocean to meet the needs of our region for one-quarter of a year. That’s crazy.

At a time when cities in Northern California face rationing, and farms in the Central Valley lie fallow, we are flushing billions of gallons of water into the ocean. That same water is causing huge environmental problems because of the trash, pathogens, and toxins it carries. There must be a better way.

Fortunately, there is. There is a growing consensus across the region that stormwater is not just a pollutant, but a valuable source of water. Stormwater capture projects, when done well, deliver water quality benefits, water supply benefits, and bring much needed green space into our city. It is true that stormwater capture is not a panacea for our supply needs. But it is an important part of a portfolio of projects to increase local water reliability that includes water conservation, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup. Today we import 90 percent of our water from more than 100 miles away. At the same time, we dump 350 million gallons a day of treated effluent into the Santa Monica Bay from the Hyperion Treatment Plant, and discharge billions of gallons of polluted stormwater into the bay every time it rains. It’s past time to bring these three separate systems together and focus on an approach to integrated water in our region.

There is some great work underway throughout the region to do this and to deal with stormwater pollution. For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan currently in development is looking at infiltration systems built into city streets and improved spreading grounds to refill our groundwater supplies. Countywide, projects are being developed under the MS4 permit to capture and clean up stormwater. More is needed to integrate these projects and look across agency jurisdictions, but that’s not the biggest challenge. What is missing is funding.

In November 2004, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Proposition O—the Clean Water, Ocean, River, Beach and Bay measure—with an overwhelming yes vote. In the past decade, Prop O has funded dozens of projects, including the restoration of Echo Park Lake and installation of thousands of trash capture devices in storm drains. But as of January 2014, almost $492 million of the $500 million bond was obligated. These projects are helping to get us on track, but there is much more to be done. Without new funding, the rivers, creeks and beaches throughout our region will continue to be polluted.

With the increased consciousness caused by the drought, now is the time for some bold moves. We call on the state legislature to move a water bond that prioritizes investments in local water—including stormwater capture, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup. While they are at it, California lawmakers need to pass reforms that enable municipalities to more easily raise fees for stormwater cleanup. Why should stormwater projects have a higher bar than water supply or refuse pickup? At the local level, we call on our political leaders to prioritize funding for local water—either as stand-alone or part of other infrastructure measures. Pot holes may be an annoyance, but water is literally life and death. And at the community level, we encourage everyone to do their part—by conserving potable water and capturing stormwater through rain barrels and rain gardens and becoming informed about where your water comes from.

It’s an exciting time to be working on water in our region. Join us and be a part of the future of Los Angeles.

First spots of rain falling
First spots of rain falling

Last call at the oasis: or are we screwed?

last-call-at-the-oasisI don’t normally go in for depressing documentaries. But when the local art house is showing a documentary on water around the world (“Last Call at the Oasis“) followed by a  panel discussion with some of my friends and board members at Heal the Bay, I will make an exception.

Moving stories from Las Vegas, Midland Texas, Australia, Israel and right here in California painted a pretty grim picture of our water woes around the world. Pesticides are bleeding endocrine disruptors into water, turning male frogs into females. Kids are getting lesions from swimming in water polluted with fraking chemicals.   The aquifer below the great central valley is being bled dry from unregulated wells. Mix in the disruption of climate change and you have a depressing narrative. As one of the scientists summed up: “we’re screwed.”

But amid the doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope. Some in the film and some shared by the panelists.  For years I have been hearing about water wars. Turns out its a fallacy. A social scientist had studied wars over the past 50 years and found that water had actually brought warring sides together even as conflict raged. And think we’ll never be drinking recycled water? Think again. Singapore already meets 30 percent of its potable needs through cleverly branded “new” water.   Turns out recycled water is more regulated and safer than bottler water. The answer? Put “new” water in bottles and sell it as “porcelain springs” with a slick campaign!

When it got down to it, a lot of this is about local communities coming together to stand up for their local water sources and solve problems in their neighborhoods, communities, cities and states. Take Santa Monica, as an example. Tired of waiting for the state or federal government to clean up ground water contaminated with M.T.B.E. and other noxious chemicals,  it took matters into its own hands and sued the oil companies responsible for the pollution. The result? $250 million to clean up local groundwater. Local water supplies in Santa Monica have shot from zero percent to 72 percent in a few short years.

We need to take that approach at every level. And we can’t wait for it to happen to us. We just need to get it done.

Our cities and state can start to invest in local water today. By cleaning up ground-water. Capturing stormwater to recharge our aquifers and irrigate our lawns and golf courses. And recycling more waste water — as David Nahai said, “it’s only waste water if we chose to waste it.” 

And on a personal level, we can work to reduce our water footprint by installing low-flow fixtures. Capturing rain in rain barrels. Installing simple and cheap grey water systems to re-use water from your washing machine to water the yard. And turning off our sprinklers when it rains. Speaking of which, I turned mine off this morning as the rain started to fall. Did you?

Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.
Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.

Precious water: what price waste?

On Wednesday I joined Mayor Garcetti, Governor Brown and members of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience at a reception to kick off day-long talks about how the federal government can help communities confront climate change. And today in Fresno, President Obama is unveiling an aid package for communities hit hardest by the drought.

Even as we address immediate needs of drought-stricken communities, we must also be moving beyond short-term aid, to investing in a water system for California’s future. And that presents historic opportunities for our work at Heal the Bay. Since 1985, we have been focused on cleaning up pollution in California’s waterways and ocean.  We have had some remarkable successes.  However, many of the state’s rivers and streams still fail to meet clean water standards and much of our ground water is polluted.

Hyperion
Just some of the 250 million gallons of water that is discharged to the bay each and every day

There’s much discussion at the moment about how we “waste” water by dumping it into the ocean. Every time I hear that I cringe. While it is not a waste to let water flow to the ocean (it’s an essential part of the natural system that keeps us alive), it is a waste is to dump highly treated water in the ocean that could be reused to off-set dwindling imported supplies.   And we do this every day from countless wastewater treatment plants. One plant alone, Hyperion out by LAX,  flushes 250 million gallons a day of treated waste water into Santa Monica Bay – equivalent to the water needs of 2 ½ million people. That’s unconscionable waste!

And then there’s storm water. When it does rain, millions of gallons of water flush through our cities via engineered culverts and channels, picking up pollutants in its rush to the ocean. In a naturally functioning system, much of this would infiltrate into the ground and replenishing our aquifers.  Instead we are left with polluted beaches and depleted aquifers. Crazy!

We cannot make it rain. But we can make much better use of the precious water we have. Today, Heal the Bay is advocating for solutions and investments that make better use of our local water resources – from groundwater clean-up, to storm water capture and recharge, to increased recycling. Taken as a package, they will go a long way to cleaning up our rivers, streams, and ocean. And that will make for a healthier bay. I’ll drink to that!

The D Word

ImageI have spent much of the past two weeks on the beach. While much of the rest of the country continues to suffer through sub-zero temperatures, it has remained a balmy 72 and sunny here in Southern California.  It’s been great as my family from the Bay Area and England has been here for the holidays.  Each day we’d remark how glad we were it had, “turned out nice again.” Let’s face it, 72 degrees and sunny is pretty much perfect. Christmas on the beach. Can you beat it? Really not.

But with the holidays a memory, it is time to get serious about what 72 and sunny means for us in Southern California and beyond. If it persists, and with no rain in the forecast it seems likely, we need to start thinking about drought. According to the head of the Department of Water Resources the Governor is starting to think the same. When a drought is declared in Sacramento, it has cascading affects across the state. Crops die as previously irrigated fields dry.  Sprinklers are banned and lawns turn brown  Native fish in our streams struggle as water is diverted.  Water quality suffers as discharge regulations are relaxed. The economy suffers as farmers fields fallow. And we start counting the days until the rain drops fall.

2013 was a record dry year for the state. By some estimates, it was the driest year in California since records began…….way back in 1849. In downtown Los Angeles we had 3.6 inches of rain – drier than 1947 and 1953 when 4.08 inches fell.  To add some perspective, in 1849 the states population was about 50,000; 1940 it was 6.9 million; 1950 it was 10.6 million; and in 2010 stood at 37 million.

That’s less rain and a lot (LOT) more people. It’s true that we have built a remarkable system to capture and transport most of the state’s water from north to south (while sweeping in water from the Colorado system to boot). We’re definitely getting better at using water efficiently here in California — after all, LA’s population has grown over the last 20 years and our water usage has not. But we have a long way to go. In California we use an average of 105 gallons per day per person. In Australia they have it down to 59.

The impending drought highlights the need to invest in our water infrastructure in California. But we can no longer assume it’s just a matter of impounding and transporting water from north to south. We need to work towards a more resilient system. And resiliency has to start locally. We need to make investments to reduce demand and make California a world leader. We need to make better use of local water supplies by cleaning up and harvesting groundwater, sustainably. We need to recycle wastewater (300 million gallons a day out of Hyperion alone).  We need to capture, infiltrate and make use of urban runoff – reducing stormwater pollution in the process. And then and only then should we shore up our ability to move water around the state to better match supply and demand.

Doing all of this is going to take bold leadership. We at Heal the Bay are ready. Are you?

Exploring the roots of urban sprawl

I’m slowly exploring more of the greater Los Angeles area. Recently I drove over the mountain in Topanga to the San Fernando Valley. Before the switchbacks, a sign and pull-out pointed me toward the Topanga Overlook. Turns out people have been stopping here for as long as cars have been on the road. Early in the morning, the air was still clear. The overwhelming impression looking north was of a green valley punctuated with grey tower blocks, with desiccated hills beyond.

But it hasn’t always been this way. There’s a great interpretive sign at the Overlook that shows what you would have seen about 70 years ago. As I expected, the space looked more open. Back then farms and rangeland filled the Valley. But what really struck me were the trees. I expected to see the change in the built environment. But not the trees. (It’s telling that Encino, one of the Valley’s more notable communities, is named for the Spanish word for oak.)

As people moved to the Valley they brought the trappings of modern suburbia with them. Freeways. Strip malls. Tract homes. And trees.

Trees are great. Don’t get me wrong, I spent the better part of the last 15 years protecting them. But trees don’t thrive in arid environments. I have no idea what the proliferation of trees has done to the water budget for the Valley. But I do know that the vast majority of the water used to sustain them is imported from far away. Both the suburban sprawl and the trees are testament to that. Obviously, trees in the Valley aren’t the root of our water issues in L.A., but they do symbolize our complicated relationship to our surroundings.

Over the recent decades, Angelenos have embraced water conservation, reducing consumption while our population continued to grow. However, we’ll need to do more if Los Angeles is to secure a reliable water future. We’ll have to get smarter at retaining, recycling and re-using local water. That way we can retain our trees and ensure the future of our cities.

Heal the Bay is working with local communities in South Los Angeles to build urban pocket parks that both clean up stormwater and put it to beneficial uses to irrigate parks that people can enjoy. You can learn more about our Healthy Neighborhoods initiative here.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/exploring-roots-sprawl-valley#sthash.WIwalQJh.dpuf

The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook
The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook

On the Watershed

40% of LA is paved
LA is 40% paved over

It’s Wednesday and that means I need to move my car from the north side of the street between the hours of 12 noon and 3 pm. If I remember, the street sweeper can work its magic.  If I forget, I risk a fine. That had me thinking of watersheds. Bear with me.

The concept of a watershed is pretty simple — it’s an area of land where all water falling within it drains to a common point. It’s also the name given to the boundary demarcating this area. Whether we know it or not, we all live within a watershed.  Healthy watersheds provide a home for countless creatures and give us clean water. Start to mess with a watershed — by building in it, damming it, logging it, mining or drilling in it — and you start to impair the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. Unfortunately many watersheds around the world are suffering today. And in turn, so does anything that lives there — including us.

It’s hard to image that a heavily urbanized area is also a watershed. Fly over LA and all you see are buildings as far as the eye can see. To me, it couldn’t get more different from northern California and its thick blanket of forest.   But both are watersheds and both suffer from degradation that affects the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. In turn, poor water quality and degraded watersheds, struggle to support life and provide us with clean, drinkable, swimable water.

In northern California, rural roads that dump sediment into creeks and a legacy of aggressive logging are obvious signs of an impaired watershed. Millions are being spent fixing these problems so salmon and other animals can once again thrive.  Down here in Los Angeles, it’s different. I now live in a highly urbanized environments where I almost never see a creek, let alone a fish swimming in it.  For 28 years, Heal the Bay has led the charge to clean up Santa Monica bay and its watersheds. At first it had to tackle the acute problems, such as the dumping of untreated wastewater in to the Bay that was killing sea life and sickening surfers. Today, the challenges are more those of a chronic malaise. We’ve triaged the worst of it, and now we have to deal with the underlying causes — foremost is how we deal with storm water that flushes directly from the street to the bay, untreated, carrying the toxic debris of urban living with it.

Because in most regions all water flows to the ocean, the health of the bay is an indicator of the health of the region and its watersheds.  When we can swim in the bay 365 days a year and know that it provides a rich environment for the countless sea life beneath the waves, we know we’re doing our job. While huge strides have been made over the past 28 years, there’s a long way to go to complete the task of healing Santa Monica bay.

And that brings me back to street sweeping.  Moving your car once a week is a simple act that helps keep the watershed just that little bit healthier.  Every bit of trash swept up is one less piece that is dumped in the bay.  And what’s true down here, is also true in your neighborhood. As all oceans are really just one body of water, so we all live in the same watershed. And to me that’s a powerful thought as I move my car and help protect the ocean along the way.

Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay
Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay