Tag Archives: water

Floods force us to confront returning land to nature

I’ve just returned from two wet weeks in northern England visiting my family for the holidays. Let’s just say it was wet. Very wet.

Over the last few weeks, England has suffered historic floods with no end in sight. The evening news showed town centers such as Kendal, Carlisle, Appleby, Leeds, and Manchester inundaded.   Talking with the old farmers around Sedbergh who have lived on the land for decades, they cannot recall the rivers being so high, or in flood for so long. Their memory is born out by the sight of medieval bridges that have seen centuries of water flow under their arches being washed away. And of course, it’s born out by the rainfall gauges that are recording record totals day after day, week after week.

We ventured out onto the fell in one storm and could see the fields come alive with traces of rivers and streams where none normally existed. Every drop of rain fell on saturated ground creating sheet flow across the fields until it found or created a channel to rush onward to the rivers which quickly rose to fill their banks.  For a few hours, Sedbergh was cut off as the main road flooded and in Kendal the river broke its banks and flooded the homes yet again.

But despite all of this, Sedbergh was spared the floods. Why?

Sedbergh is a small market town set in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales. And while the river flooded a few holiday caravans, the town was spared because of where it’s located.  The town itself has grown nestled along the base of the Howgill fells, set back from the river. My hunch is this happy accident is a result of open land being maintained along the river because it’s largely owned by two schools – Sedbergh School (founded in 1545) and the local state school, Settlebeck. Rather than develop the land, it’s been maintained as estate land and sports fields.  Not only does it provide a great place to walk or kick a ball about, or raise a few sheep, but it’s a natural source of flood protection that needs little in the way of maintenance.

We need to do what we can to protect open space that provides flood protection where it exists – it’s simply crazy to continue to issue building permits for land we know will flood. But the recent floods in Britain also force us to think the previously unthinkable — to recreate openspace where it once existed.  The alternative is to further harden our cities at vast expense, with the inevitable consquence that when the concrete fails the impact will be catastrophic.

A long-time friend was visiting for New Year with his family. He’s an actuary working for one of the UK’s largest insurace companies. While he doesn’t work in the property market, he’s come to the same conclusion from a financial risk perspective. Namely that it’s time to have a serious conversation about managing retreat and giving back a little of our developed footprint to nature.  It’s going to be a hard conversation – but after some homes have flooded three-times in a month, it’s a conversation we desperately need to have.

And with record floods in the southern USA, sea level encroaching on Miami Beach during high tides, and El Nino poised to slam into California, it’s a conversation needed around the world.

[An interactive 3D model of Sedbergh and it’s projected flood zones was developed by Garsdale Design and can be viewed online here.]

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FLOODED SPORTS FIELD AT SEDBERGH PRIMARY SCHOOL
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THE RIVER RAWTHEY LAPS OVER ITS BANKS, SEDBERGH, UK

 

The challenge of cutting water use by 25 per cent – the water meter

It took snow pack levels to drop to 5 percent for the State to finally mandate water conservation. They are targeting a 25 percent reduction in water use across the state. But what does that mean for the average residential user?

Unfortunately, I think it may mean not much.

After all, we’re used to reading that the biggest water users are agriculture. Can’t we just let the farmers growing almonds in the Central Valley or alfalfa in the desert figure this out? They can do there part, and my part as well? While that is easy to say, It also sends the wrong message. It’s incumbent on all residential users to do our part before we turn and say others should.

And that’s where I start to get hung up.

What can I really do to reduce my own water use by 25 percent? In other words, for every 4 gallons I use today I need to use 3 tomorrow. I live in a small rental with no lawn and no dishwasher. So I can’t turn off the sprinkler and wait until the dishwasher is full to run it. My car is already dirty and on the rare occasion it gets washed, it’s at the local car wash that recycles its water.  I’m not one for singing in the shower and if I started to shower only every other day people may complain — especially on the days I go for a run!

And beyond all of this, even if I do figure out how to reduce my usage. How will I know? The good news is I live in a city with water meters. The bad news is it is buried in the sidewalk, beneath a heavy inspection chamber, covered in dirt and gunk and uses a series of hard-to-read dials. When the bill finally arrives, it’s months out of date. If the state is serious about residential users cutting their use by 25 percent that has to change. Give me a smart water meter that I can read using my phone and I’ll then have the tools I need to translate my actions to the savings. Until then, I am afraid that as well meaning as I am, I am really flying blind on all of this.

And believe me, I hate to say that having worked in and around water and conservation issues for years.

Water levels are critically low in Stampede Reservoir
Water levels are critically low in Stampede Reservoir

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?

 

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

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 water of life

Ever wondered why whisky is called the water of life?  After spending a week on Islay and Jura touring seven of the nine distilleries on offer I have a new found appreciation for why. In a very real sense, the dram you drink is the essence of the island – its smokey peat and salty sea airs. But water is by far the most important ingredient.  And not just the 50% of the glass that is water, it’s the many thousands of gallons that is used and discarded along the way. Gallons we never see or think about.

Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain
Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain

StillsMaking whisky is basically simple: sprout barley; grind it up to a coarse flour; add water and ferment to make a strong tangy beer; distill and then leave to mature for years in oak barrels. Almost every stage of the process uses water to wet, to heat, to cool, or to wash. Millions of gallons that come from the rivers and lochs of the islands. So much water that when they have a dry spell the distilleries shut right down.  It’s called the “dark season” and gives the workers a chance to take a well-earned break. But it’s driven by the ebb and flow of rain on the island. Fortunately for us whisky lovers, its a wet place. But I for one will be hoping that changing climate doesn’t lengthen the dry season and the dark season for the stills.