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Liquid Diet: Seven Steps to Save the Future

Or at least to stretch the water we have

Illustration by Comrade

1. By the Yard

Green equals money: Garden irrigation accounts for more than 50 percent of all water used in L.A., and much of it is wasted through overwatering and poorly adjusted sprinklers that water sidewalks. The solution: Begin by repairing broken sprinklers and not overwatering. To see how much your garden needs, cut back on water until you notice some wilting. Then up the water gradually until your plants look happy again. L.A. already limits the number of days you can water outdoors to three. Next, consider if all that turf is really necessary; switching from lawn to less thirsty landscaping can cut landscape water use by 90 percent. The DWP will (for a limited time) pay you up to $2 a square foot to make the change.

2. Farmers’ Market

California farms are some of the world’s most productive. They also suck up 80 percent of California’s water supply. Half of that goes to grow low-value, water-intensive cattle feed. And half of all farms in the state use wasteful flood irrigation, essentially submerging the soil. the Solution: Farmers could save as much water each year as all homes and businesses use (at one-fifth the cost of building new dams) in part by adopting drip irrigation, micro sprinklers, and “smart” irrigation scheduling. The other key: planting more efficient crops. For instance, alfalfa is far thirstier than grapes, and tomatoes grown on the Central Coast use less than half the water as those raised in the desert by the Colorado River.

3. Riding the Storm

Even in a dry decade like this one has been, 36 billion gallons of storm water are sluiced into the county’s drainage system and into the sea each year. the Solution: The region could buttress its annual water supply by 330,000 acre-feet (half of what L.A. uses in a year) by capturing rainfall. Home owners could create “rain gardens,” where the landscape is contoured to hold water as it percolates into the ground to restore local aquifers. For the same effect the city could install “green streets” that channel runoff into small areas of sand and gravel with native plants rather than storm drains. There are already larger versions—some disguised as parks and soccer fields, like Pan Pacific Park by the Grove.

4. Going  Gray

Fully 40 percent of the water we use in our homes goes down the drain of our shower (or bath) and the clothes washer, even though it’s clean enough to reuse in the garden. The solution: Since 2011, it’s been legal in California to route that water into a gray water system. You just have to make sure the pipes are buried so that the dog can’t get to them and only plant oil-based detergents—no bleach!—are used. Companies like L.A.’s EnviroMeasures can set you up for about the price of a regular irrigation system.

5. Low Sodium

The oceans are rising. Our water supply is potentially shrinking. The solution: Desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean could provide a near-limitless supply for homes and farms, but only as a last resort. Because of the electricity required to strain out the salt, it’s expensive—four to six times the cost of recycling wastewater and up to ten times as much as simply conserving. All that energy use (see box below) means the process has a huge carbon footprint, and disposing of the resulting brine would threaten marine life. 

6. Eau de Toilette

The largest steady stream in Southern California isn’t the L.A. River. It’s the 362 million gallons of treated sewage flowing each day from the city’s Hyperion Treatment Plant into the sea. The solution: Treated further, it could replace imported water that is used to keep golf courses green and cool power plants rather than for drinking water. Orange County’s treated wastewater, reinjected and filtered through its aquifer, produces enough water for 600,000 people—at one-fourth the cost of new supplies.

7. Plumb Job

Though L.A. residents on average are fairly waterwise (see page 164), we’ll have to do better as supplies are squeezed and the population grows. The Solution: Those easy conservation steps you’ve been hearing about forever—installing low-flow toilets and showerheads, switching to high-efficiency clothes washers, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, and installing faucet aerators—can save tens of thousands of gallons a year. See how many dozens of gallons your household uses a day with water footprint calculators, such as the one at wecalc.org/calc.

Water in L.A.