“California’s water situation is like a bald man with a beard – it’s all there; it’s just not distributed right.” – MWD representative
Like most Californians, when it comes to water, I simply don’t think about it that much. I just turn on the tap and fresh, potable water comes out. Then I get a bill with a bunch of random line items with inscrutable descriptions and I pay it. And then sometimes they tell us it’s a drought so I try to be a good citizen and I don’t clean my sidewalk with a hose and I give my neighbors the stink eye when they do. And that’s about it.
Well, I now have no excuse for total ignorance. Over the past 10 months, I have been a part of Leadership LA and through this program, I recently had the opportunity to spend the day at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWP) and see our local water infrastructure up close with a tour of the Joseph Jensen Treatment Plant in Granada Hills.
I learned all sorts of complicated and fascinating and eye-opening stuff, but I’m going to focus this post on the most surprising things we learned and what all Californians need to know.
Where does our water actually come from?
LA is basically a desert – 89% OF OUR WATER IS IMPORTED! (Source: LA Dept. of Water and Power (LADWP) Fact Sheet 2010) That is both complete insanity and an incredible feat of human ingenuity and engineering. To our predecessors and I’m talking to you, William Mulholland, I say: I don’t totally agree with what you’ve done here, but wow. It’s not worth dwelling on it too much because we have too many problems to deal with right now to entertain the idea of having done things differently in the past…Here we are folks.
That said, we can’t keep going with business as usual. Basically, we keep adding more people while there isn’t any more water (and, in fact, might be less in the future) so our conservation impulse here in southern California is less altruistic and more “Oh shit.”
Our imported water comes from basically three places (See a map.):
The State Water Project & the Delta
Being a Nor-cal native, some of my first words as a child probably involved complaining about those damn So-cal people stealing OUR water. That is partially true. I will start our tour of California’s water system in the mighty Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which, if we were a more spiritual people, could be considered the state’s fountain of life. How essential is it?
The Delta provides water for 25 million Californians (out of 37.7M of us in total) and, more staggering, irrigation for half of all fruits and vegetables for the entire United States. It’s amazing and critical to all of California – however, we So-cal urbanites are not the #1 users. Of all the Bay-Delta water, 4% makes its way down the canal of the State Water Project for use down here. The biggest chunk goes to agriculture.
The Delta is that big flat area you see as you drive to Sacramento – all those canals, etc. – it’s where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and it goes all the way to the San Francisco Bay. If you’ve road-tripped down the I-5, you have seen the SWP – it’s that blue stripe of a canal wending its way down the state. It’s massive – it’s also old and it’s screwing with the environment. More below.
The Owens Valley
Have you seen the movie Chinatown? Enough said. A driving tour podcast was recently produced about the Owens Valley – looks pretty sweet if anyone wants to road trip with me!
The Colorado River
The LA aqueduct was pretty great…but still not enough!!! So thirsty! So William Mulholland and the City of LA formed the MWD to build the 242-mile long Colorado River Aqueduct. Flash forward to today: the Colorado is the most litigated river in the world! And it’s in distress!
If you want to go deeper – this blog post is a really solid overview.
Why your water rates are going to go up
Let’s kick this off with a horror film – this is what would happen if we had a 6.4 earthquake in the Bay-Delta, something which has a very high possibility of happening.
Earthquakes, global warming causing rising sea levels and snow melt, salt water intrusion, the invasion of non-native species and loss of habitat – just a few of the major issues for the Delta. Good luck sleeping at night. The State Water Project was built in the 1960s and is in serious need of an upgrade – plus we’ve learned a lot in the past 50 years and need to mitigate some of the environmental harm we’ve already done and restore habitat.
The situation is so bad that the state legislature/governator actually managed to pass a plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. All of us in California will be paying for it – here in LA, the projected cost is $5-6 a month per household. And that’s just for the Delta water we get. Don’t complain – the Bay Area residents passed a bond to upgrade the Hetch-Hetchy water system and build a tunnel under the bay that will cost them way more per capita.
And that’s just the start.
The Nexus of Water and Power and why desalination and wind power aren’t all that awesome
“20% of California’s electricity goes to moving water around.” – Jack Sahl, Ph.D. – Director, Environment and Resource Sustainability for Southern California Edison (SCE)
Jack Sahl from SCE who joined some great folks from TreePeople and Heal the Bay for a panel on Water, Energy and Environmental Sustainability in LA had lots of good one-liners that were more like Buddhist koans inviting further reflection. Chew on these:
- “It takes a lot of water to generate electricity and a lot of electricity to move water around.”
- “Electricity you don’t use is the cleanest and least expensive.”
- “Historically, we have stored water in California as snow.” (Put that in the context of global warming.)
I’m going to pause us here. We Americans have a history of looking to new technology as the messiah that will deliver us from our energy problems. THERE IS NO PERFECT SOURCE OF POWER WITH ZERO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT. It’s likely all these new green technologies will be part of the picture and they keep getting better, but any of them is not a singular solution to our problems.
Desalination sounds awesome – look at all that ocean water, all we have to do is take out that darn salt! Well, taking out the salt, much less moving all that water from sea level up the hill to us takes a ton of power…which has to come from somewhere. Wind power? The wind is out in the desert which means massive power lines for miles and miles to get the power to consumers in LA, not to mention that is incredibly inefficient because a lot of power is lost in transit. It doesn’t have the same sex appeal, but the meta approach to these problems is an overall move from a “command and control power system” to a distributed system.
And on to a final koan from Jack:
“Don’t talk about sustainability in terms of being good people – we have to be laser-focused on the value proposition.”
That last one bears a little more explanation. The world is changing constantly and people and organizations aren’t always so great at changing. So even if we know what we should be doing, how do you actually get people to change? If you’re talking to a CEO of a corporation, you show him the numbers AKA the value proposition. Ditto for those government folks. Ditto for those water and power consumers – am I more likely to use less water because you gave me a magnet with a pithy slogan or because you gave me a rebate to get a low-flow toilet?
At government policy-level, Kristen James, Director of Water Quality with Heal the Bay cast it in this light:
“The environment shouldn’t always come last. It can integrate with economic needs.”
And from Nurit Katz, Chief Sustainability Officer, UCLA:
“We could be zero impact. We have enough resources and technology – the blocks are political and budgetary.”
Basically, we all have to work together and, furthermore, trust each other – across departments of government, across business, non-profit and government groups. Easier said than done, but here’s your value proposition – We have no choice. With limited resources, we simply can’t get away with the way we’ve been doing things in the past.
All this stuff can make you really depressed and frustrated. Jack Sahl put this in a rosier context, pointing out that we’re past the worst of it in a sense and we have made progress – We reached peak CO2 emissions and gas use in 2009-10 even as the population has continued to grow and that if you want to talk air pollution, the ‘60s and ‘70s were when we had serious problems. In short:
“We have had uninterrupted progress in the last 100 years.”
Go humans! We’re got this.