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Learning about sustainable water management: The case of Los Angeles

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Patricia Quintero Estades

Oh it is magical!

In the Disney movie Enchanted, a twist on the traditional fairy tale, Giselle is pushed out of her fairy-tale world into modern-day New York City where a divorce attorney Robert and his daughter take her in. After spending a night in their NYC apartment, Giselle and Robert have this exchange after she takes a shower:



Running water in our homes is sort of magical when you think about it. It’s one of the most important technological improvements of industrialized societies, which has, without a doubt, had a major impact on our quality of life. We take it for granted because, unlike Giselle, we are used to it. We also generally don’t wonder where our water comes from unless something goes wrong. Of course, it is not actually magic that gets running water into our homes (sorry, Giselle!). The pipes get the water from somewhere, and it is important that we become more aware of how our water management systems work.

As I stressed in a previous post about the Flint water crisis (a good example of how we don’t think much about water and where it comes from until something goes wrong), water is an essential resource that we often take for granted. I believe it needs to be better prioritized in terms of policy and governance. However, it is hard to keep water policy in the public discourse and in the forefront of policy when we don’t really educate ourselves about how basic water management works.

Water in the LA context

I am certainly no expert when it comes to water management, so I have been trying to learn more about it—particularly in Los Angeles, where I currently reside. Los Angeles is a fascinating place to study water policies. Historically, water policies have proved harmful and shortsighted. However, LA has become a breeding ground for innovative solutions to water management, especially with small-scale projects spearheaded by community and environmental organizations.

Throughout the 20th Century, in efforts led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, large sections of the LA River were paved in order to deal with severe flooding in communities near the river. The idea was to get stormwater (significant concentrations of rain water) into the paved river and out into the Pacific Ocean as quickly as possible. That was certainly a solution for flooding, but in more recent years it has become increasingly clear that it has caused and exacerbated many other environmental and logistical problems.

Another major issue is that a whopping 80% of the water consumed in LA is imported from afar: generally, from aqueducts and reservoirs that feed from Northern California and the Colorado River—although, Mayor Garcetti has set ambitious goals in his sustainability pLAn to source 50% of water locally by 2035. If paving over the river to channel water into the ocean as quick as possible, and importing water from far away places sound like highly unsustainable approaches to water management – it is because they are.

Stormwater has enormous potential for reuse and groundwater recharge; by channeling it into the ocean we are essentially throwing that potential away. Secondly, the current system and infrastructure exacerbates water runoff contamination. From the time that the water hits the surface of a street or building to the time it gets to the river or the ocean, it will pick up pollutants and sediments—sometimes even trash—from our streets and sidewalks. That polluted, dirty water then gets routed to our waterways and oceans, causing further pollution.

Additionally, relying on water from far away is not sustainable because it requires more energy and resources to transport. It is also more expensive, and in terms of resiliency it means we don’t have a reliable source of potable water nearby in the event of an emergency or a catastrophic event.

More Effective and Sustainable Approaches to Water Management

Since the early 1990s, environmental groups and nonprofit organizations have been active in lobbying for a more comprehensive and sustainable system of water management in LA. I spoke to Melanie Winter, Founder and Director of The River Project.  She told me:

It used to be the case, a hundred years ago, that as most of our water flowed downstream from the San Gabriel Mountains, a lot of it would make its way into our groundwater basins, naturally. We are rather blessed regionally with a natural large storage of groundwater.

But as we have paved everything over and planned for everything to be thrown into storm drains and channelized waterways, and then those waterways were designed intentionally to move water away from here as quickly as possible, those groundwater basins have depleted. Water quality has worsened and flood risk has actually increased. So the way we designed the city has been the source of a lot of these issues.

There is research from around the world that demonstrates the effectiveness and the potential of small water catchments. We generally think of management in large regional projects, like dams and reservoirs, but there is research that supports that you can amplify benefits at a smaller scale and that working with natural processes instead of against them is a more cost-effective approach.

This is why organizations like TreePeople and The River Project have been working on making homes in LA more sustainable in terms of water capture and use. What is often referred to “watershed-based planning” takes into account all of the water-related natural processes that occur in an area. Taking these processes into account creates a more sustainable and localized approach to water use and capture that better imitates natural processes.

This sounds rather complicated, but the gist of it is this: create small-scale projects to capture rainwater, reuse water, decrease consumption, and feed water into groundwater aquifers (known as groundwater recharge) in a specific parcel or location, rather than allowing water to run off-site. These projects, often referred to as Low Impact Developments (LIDs) or urban acupuncture projects, take a parcel or a block out of a neighborhood and retrofit them to include more water-friendly infrastructure.

Curb Bump-Out Rain Garden A curb bump-out and rain garden in Portland, OR

Curb Bump-Out Rain Garden A curb bump-out and rain garden in Portland, OR

Designing water capture and water reuse projects parcel by parcel and neighborhood by neighborhood means that plans can be drawn up to best fit the needs of the residents or businesses, as well as the physical conditions of the area. If we can get these small developments to scale throughout the city, the impacts to the water supply and water quality in LA are predicted to be quite impressive and cost-effective.

Moving Forward

But there are still many obstacles in place for this approach to water management to prevail. In a New York Times article from last year that praises these types of sustainable projects in LA, Mark Pestrella from the LA County Public Works Department is quoted saying that: “Governance is probably the biggest obstacle to a sustainable water supply.” In fact, the River Project—led by Ms. Winter—has created a collective called WaterLA, which tries to bring together the many different stakeholders from different sectors, to get these small, localized projects to scale throughout LA.

Of the decision to form WaterLA, Winter said: “It stemmed from the question of: ‘We know how to do it. Now how can we get it to scale'”. An aspect of it was addressing the cultural and financial constraints that were keeping homeowners from embracing these types of projects in their homes. But perhaps more challenging has been working with government agencies to change some of the policies, ordinances, and building codes that make it hard or impossible to get these projects to scale:

If we’re going to get this to scale, what we have to get at is the fact that we designed the city, and it’s [reflected] in building codes, to require that every drop of water that falls on your property move off your property as fast as possible, and gets into the flood system. So if we want to turn that around then we have to go after those codes and ordinances so we no longer require that to happen.

They have had important successes, like for example, The River Project played a key role in changes that now allow LA residents to have a much more affordable and streamlined process for getting a permit to install a greywater reuse system in their homes (to reuse water from the laundry, tub, or lavatory sink).

However, there are still many other roadblocks and policies in place that require that water get into storm drains as directly as possible, which make it much harder to implement some of these projects, especially at a large scale and in a cost-effective way. She stressed that a lot of these outdated practices and ordinances were simply a reflection of the fact that Angelenos are not prioritizing water and valuing it as much as we should, considering the need we have for it.


If you’d like to learn more about WaterLA and what you can do to get involved visit their website here.

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