Los Angeles Is Finally Starting to Run Out of Water
Jan 27 2014
In LA, we know our region cycles between El Niño years and drought years, but we don't have many bone-dry years. Right now is the driest the region has been in 163 years of formal record keeping. It's also probably the driest it's been in 500 years, and a sign of LA's bleak future. The word "drought" has lost all meaning to us though. Our utilities have done a brilliant job of keeping us comfortable, with plentiful running water, while every part of our region without plumbing wilts to a crisp.
Talk to older Southern Californians and they'll throw up finger quotes when they use the word "drought." They'll blame politicians and environmentalists for droughts as though they control the weather. In Sacramento, there's so much finger-pointing and leftover bitterness from the last drought, or the one before, or the one before that, that we forget to notice that our hills are on fire, bears are wandering into our cities, our air is toxic, and some of our unique flora and fauna face extinction in months, not years.
When Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, he told us all we need to use 20 percent less water. Local news reports about the drought are idiotic, and basically tell you what products to buy. Reporters tend to parrot the talking points provided to them. Debbie Arrington of the Sacramento Bee urges you to conserve in the well-intentioned article, "Drought makes water saving a household necessity." It features advice like, "A 20 percent cut represents 76 gallons. Think of it as two loads of laundry or seven short showers."
Great. Saving water and putting less strain on the water districts is a good thing to do. However, my toilet is already so low-flow it just asks my turds nicely to go down the drain. My showerhead is like standing under a sleeping baby.
Granted, local news is just supposed to be a comforting slurry of news-flavored distraction, and I really don't believe it needs to shake viewers into some kind of environmentalist hysteria. Still, there's a point at which telling people to plant native flowers available at your local Lowe's goes from mawkish and bland to Orwellian. I've been hearing the conservation message since I was in kindergarten and it all runs together. Conservation is a small part of the story this year.
So what's the "story," smart guy?
The story is that LA is California’s drain hole. The imperative to keep our megalopolis going comes with zero regard for what that costs the surrounding region. LA is piped into the rest of the state's water supply via the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct—named after our current governor's father. The state is a tangle of water conveyance channels and pipes, with farmers, politicians, and environmentalists fighting the same water war William Mulholland fought almost a hundred years ago. Driving up the I-5 freeway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you'll pass huge banners on fallow fields reading, "End the Congress Created Dust Bowl," and "Food Grows Where Water Flows." The farmers get furious about losing water rights to other farmers, or worst of all, endangered species.
The Los Angeles water supply hangs from a gossamer thread, but for all we know, we're flush with water. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), says we're prepared. Here in Los Angeles, we hardly care about local rainfall. While explaining his job to me, a former Southern California water district official confided that the people who manage water utilities in Southern California are so focused on the buying and selling of water that a rainy year is something of an irritation. Despite their valiant attempts to capture the rain, most of it gets channeled into the sea, which is a frustrating waste that they lament as they return to buying from a wholesaler.
To try and understand the situation, I talked to LADWP spokesperson Jane Galbraith about this. "The Los Angeles Aqueduct is providing 20 percent of our water this year,” she told me, referring to the Mulholland-designed aqueduct that conveys water from an area just north of our city. “It provides 75 percent in a wet year," she went on. As for the rest? "We're buying water from Metropolitan Water District," she explained. "They're the wholesaler. We'll be buying 80 percent from Met." Buying from a wholesaler is more expensive than using the water that just flows in from the Owens Valley that supplies The Los Angeles Aqueduct, so prices will go up, but at the moment, there's no real danger of running out. In theory.
But where does this mysterious Metropolitan Water District get its seemingly limitless supply of water? Partly it's from the California Aqueduct, which flows down from NorCal. But what really keeps our fountains pointlessly flowing here in Southern California is the Colorado River Aqueduct.
The decline of the Colorado River via
"On [offshoots of] the Colorado River, they're built huge reservoirs: Lake Mathews, Lake Skinner, Diamond Valley Lake." These popular recreation lakes are big enough to surf in, but they're really just some of the world's largest water storage facilities. So Metropolitan Water District has water for Los Angeles, and every other county in Southern California. "They've never reported a shortage for Los Angeles," Galbraith told me, without adding the word "yet."
Despite recent flooding in Colorado, the Colorado River is in a drought of its own. That is especially terrifying, when you realize that the Colorado River has already been in decline for decades. But you'd never know it by looking at the huge lakes we call revervoirs. We're legally entitled, along with smaller cities like San Diego and Phoenix, to drink a set amount of the Colorado River each year, which lets us feel blameless, even as we read stories about the Mighty Colorado becoming a creek, and Lake Mead disappearing by 2017 over our morning coffee made of water that's piped in from those very places.
Screencap via CBS
Wait. Why does LA get to drain the Colorado River?
For almost a hundred years, we’ve been preparing for a dire water apocalypse, and this is it. We're draining our vast reservoirs to stay alive for the time being, but we're not acknowledging that our city got here through feats of engineering combined with chicanery, fraud, and hubris in the first place.
If you learned everything you know about the history of LA’s water from Chinatown, you've had a taste, but you don't know much. Pre-Columbian Los Angeles had enough water for a fishing settlement where the not-so-mighty Los Angeles River trickled into the sea. Later, western settlers turned it into a bunch of connected commercial areas, and then a big, sprawling town, but there wasn't, and isn't, and never will be enough naturally occurring water here to sustain a world-class metropolis. Then an Irish huckster named William Mulholland moved in.
Mulholland was a self-taught engineer overseeing the flow of water into LA via a makeshift ditch put in place by the Spanish. Managing LA's water meant Mulholland combated drought every few years. He and his boss, Frederick Eaton, the 24th mayor of LA, saw bigger things for the City of Angels, and were willing to lie, cheat and steal to make them happen. All Mulholland and Eaton had to do was trick the farmers of the Owens Valley, north of LA, into giving up the rights to their own water.
Eventually, the farmers got wise, and waged economic warfare via price hikes, which Mulholland resisted. They waged a bloodless resistance campaign against Mulholland that newspapers called "California's Little Civil War." In response, Mulholland sent a small army, and gave them shoot-to-kill orders. Later, Mulholland pulled a similar prank on communities to LA's northwest by building the St. Francis Dam. That time, however, the war wasn't bloodless. The dam failed immediately following an inspection by Mulholland, and as many as 600 people died.
Still, Los Angeles, with its now plentiful water, expanded and became the way-too-spread-out city it is today, all because the 20th Century was a wet century. The 21st Century is looking dry.
So we should do what? Give the water back?
The environmentalist in me can't justify diverting more water from the Sacramento River Delta, like in Jerry Brown's contentious twin tunnel plan, but as a human, my fellow humans need water. Similarly, the Colorado River once fed a brackish ecosystem near the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. That's all ancient history now, and that delta is barely a trickle. We're doing the same for every source of water in the Southwest. We need every drop for ourselves. To accommodate the perverse placement of our human settlements, we're second-guessing the knowledge of erosion and remaking our state's waterways in the manner of our choosing.
In short, we've been flipping off Mother Nature for a century, but we're still losing. Maybe we can't have a city here after all. Time to pack up and go, everyone. We gave it our best shot.
Of course, my proposal to dismantle and relocate Los Angeles probably won't be popular.
California's natural beauty is going to shrivel up sooner than humanity here will. An ecologist named Craig Allen told National Geographic a few years ago, "The projections are that Joshua trees may not survive in Joshua Tree National Park. Sequoias may not survive in Sequoia National Park." We may have to start weighing the idea of irrigating our national parks.
LA's air quality, something that was improving my whole life, is now taking a nosedive. It had been nice finding out that Los Angeles had a skyline, but forest fires and low humidity are bringing back smog in a big way. The Inland Empire, the area of the LA suburbs where I'm from, is starting to get dust storms. We're being told not to have fires in our fireplaces. Clinics are starting to treat people for pollution-related breathing problems, potentially leading to greater numbers of smog-related deaths.
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