The Drought: The Dry Years to Come

With a growing population and warming climate, our water problems won’t be solved by one el Niño

It was the late summer of 1991, and California was deep into one of the worst droughts in its history. For five years with only scant interruption, the sky had burned hot and blue from November through March; bathtub rings on reservoirs rose high on their sun-parched walls. Water masters were panicking: The City of Santa Barbara built a plant to strip the salt from seawater; Los Angeles swiped images from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for television ads to make people think twice about lingering in the shower.

Everybody I met talked as if the dry season would go on forever, and having only recently relocated from Minnesota, I believed them. “Remember when we used to have winter?” a woman in my office lamented to no one in particular. “We used to get so much beautiful rain.” Winter had gone the way of the downtown punk scene, Googie diners, and speedy trips along the 101. It was a symbol of what Los Angeles used to be, a figment whose memory causes a contraction in your heart, in the place where you feel longing and sadness for times gone by.

If only my new friends had paid closer attention to the distant forecast. Even as they spoke, a warm southern current was forming in the equatorial Pacific, where tropical storms gather strength to blast north toward the California coast. The sea-surface heat would build through the summer and fall, peaking around Christmastime, hence its name, El Niño, bestowed by 19th-century fishermen in honor of the baby Jesus. In October storms would uproot the big yellow umbrellas the artist Christo had installed that season in the Tehachapi Mountains; late December rainstorms would rage through January. In February of 1992, six inches of rain would fall in three hours, sending swift-water rescue teams scurrying to save flailing victims from the Los Angeles River.

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Inside the Orange Counter Water District’s water recycling facility

Photography by Spencer Lowell

Naively I had assumed that, despite the calamity the storms caused, the city would welcome the relief from drought. But the floods did us little good. City reservoirs, already full of imported water, weren’t situated in the right places to capture runoff from the streets. Instead billions of gallons of freshwater would empty each rainy day down storm drains to the ocean.

“We need these kinds of storms up in Northern California, where our reservoirs are,” Robert J. Gomperz, then spokesperson for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, explained to The New York Times. “Down here we have no way of capturing the water.” It would be another wet winter before snow returned to the mountains and officials declared an end to one more California water crisis.

Twenty-two years later, we’ve been forgetting winter again. In 2014, El Niño simmered in the Pacific through May and June but shriveled in July, abandoning the state to a fourth year of record-low reservoirs. Central Valley towns have run out of water; city lawns and leaves have gone brown. Santa Barbara has dusted off its desalination plant, the one that was shuttered in 1993 without delivering a drop of freshwater.

Once again relief might be brewing around the equator: El Niño is back, and it looks like a doozy. “Right now it’s on track to be as big as the El Niño of 1997 to 1998, which was the strongest one of the 20th century,” says Michael Dettinger, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. February 1998 remains California’s wettest on record.

Strong El Niño years herald what meteorologists call atmospheric rivers: low-elevation ribbons of tropical moisture that can drop more than a third of the state’s water supply in a few weeks. (In the winter of 1861 to 1862, when floods and blizzards spread from California to Utah, an epic atmospheric river hammered California for 43 days.) Were that much precipitation to hit the ground as rain, the state’s storage network, vast though it is, wouldn’t be able to handle it. So hydrologists hope the storms cross the high peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada, where rain turns to snow and stays frozen until spring. “We call the snowpack our biggest reservoir,” says Ted Thomas, spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources. “It meters water as the snow melts over several months.”

If, that is, the mountain winter gets cold. The spring before last at Phillips Station, 6,800 feet up in the Eastern Sierra where officials from the Department of Water Resources gauge the snowpack, only a quarter of the average snow had accumulated. This April a grim-faced Governor Jerry Brown had his picture taken planting the measuring pole atop dry grass. Yet both years were far from the driest we’ll ever have. In 2015, the eight mountain outposts that matter most received an average of 75 percent of their normal precipitation. “The problem was that both years were record-breakingly warm,” Dettinger says. “That warmth completely wrecked the snowpack.”

Like many atmospheric scientists, Dettinger is reluctant to categorize what we’re experiencing as climate change. California weather, orchestrated by a weather pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, has always gone through dramatic cycles in normal times; balmy winters, they happen. But with heat-trapping gases building up in the atmosphere, we might consider 2015 a rehearsal for 2055. “This is what climate change will look like,” he says. “This is what a normal year will look like. Eventually the snowpack will disappear.”


Turf Battle
So you missed the MWD’s turf removal rebate, don’t live in the City of L.A. (the LADWP still offers $1.75 per square foot, up to 1,500 square feet), or just won’t lose the sod. At least half of local water is used in the yard. So even if the rains come, creating more climate-wise landscaping will be key to reducing that figure. How to make your lawn less of a sponge?
Go for gold
Watering once every couple of weeks will keep the grass semi-dormant rather than totally dead.
Get holy
Buy an aerator at a hardware store to poke holes in the turf. “A lot of the lawns get matted, and water doesn’t percolate down to the roots,” says Mia Lehrer, the landscape planner behind such projects as the Natural History Museum garden.
Revolve
Rotating nozzles distribute water more evenly and slowly than standard sprinkler heads, reducing usage by a fifth. Bonus: The MWD has $30 million left for rebates on fixtures and equipment.
Grow long
Taller grass holds moisture better than shorter blades and grows deeper roots.
Put it on a diet
If you can’t or won’t yank all of it, start off small. Every square foot you pull could save 44 gallons a year.
Switch blades
Zoysia, Bermuda, and St. Augustine are comparatively water-efficient, warm-season grasses. Skip reseeding with rye in winter.
Rein it in
If you tend to forget to turn off your automatic sprinklers before a rain, take advantage of the rebate available (at least $80) for a weather-based irrigation controller.

Clearly more has to be done with what falls from the sky, something beyond directing our laundry runoff to fruit trees in the backyard. Worthy as our #droughthacks might be, none of them are enough to replace the snowpack on which Los Angeles depends for at least 80 percent of its water. Eastern Sierra meltwater from the Owens Valley and Mono Lake pours into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which Mayor Fred Eaton and city engineer William Mulholland built to irrigate the city more than 100 years ago. Pumps direct freshwater from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta into the California Aqueduct before it can get to San Francisco Bay. The Colorado River, too, finds its way to the city’s taps via the Metropolitan Water District, founded in 1928 to stake Southern California’s claim to that waterway.

All those sources come from fragile ecologies that have been brought to the brink of collapse by decades of water diversions; all are contested—by local communities, environmentalists, fishermen, competing users. All of them reach us along aqueducts that intersect earthquake faults, where a cataclysmic shudder could cut off supply. When Mayor Eric Garcetti last October ordered the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to halve the city’s water imports within the next decade, he echoed a goal the utility’s managers had already set forth—and one that’s been long overdue: to remake the city of 4 million on a semiarid coast into a civilization that can survive the next century, starting with water.

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Despite the geography lesson in which we’ve all been inculcated, Los Angeles isn’t without local sources of water. And that’s not because we live near an ocean. As much as we want the grand, technological relief of converting seawater to freshwater, desalination will always remain a solution of last resort. In Carlsbad the $1 billion desal plant Poseidon Water built for San Diego County will any day now pump out what county officials tout as a “drought-proof” supply, but it has serious drawbacks. Jessica Jones, Poseidon’s community outreach manager, insisted when I drove down to visit that the company has done everything possible to avoid the technology’s environmental impact. Screens have been placed over intake pipes to suck in fewer fish, hypersaline effluent will be diluted before being discharged back into the sea. But the Carlsbad plant’s water costs twice as much as the water the county buys from the Metropolitan Water District and requires a third more energy to produce—despite having an advanced energy recovery system in place. Given that energy itself requires water, desalination is like an Escher drawing of resource use, an infinite loop of squandering.

Photography by Spencer Lowell
Castaic Lake

Photography by Spencer Lowell

San Diego, where even the limited groundwater that can be coaxed from narrow river-valley aquifers comes up salty, might need a desalination plant. Los Angeles has more viable aquifers and mountains to feed them. Storms and winter gales at higher elevations send rainfall tumbling down ancestral channels to the lowlands. For now snow falls most normal winters in the San Gabriel Mountains and melts into the many tributaries of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, pooling behind county dams. The same tectonic forces that pushed up those mountains also formed broad alluvial valleys, basins that filled over the course of the Pleistocene with the rock, silt, and sand that filter and hold water.

In Los Angeles County southwest of the San Gabriel Mountains, whole cities, such as Downey and Pico Rivera, depend entirely on groundwater from the West Coast and Central groundwater basins—in reality two segments within the larger Los Angeles Basin separated by the Newport-Inglewood fault. By the 1920s, many of the basins’ wells had been nearly pumped dry, and the basins themselves had dropped below sea level, putting them at risk of turning salty as ocean water rushed into the void. But since the early 1960s, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California has kept them sufficiently healthy and safe; Downey allows a Coca-Cola plant to bottle some of their contents for sale under the label Dasani.

Farther north in the county, the situation becomes more complicated: The San Fernando Valley Groundwater Basin can hold more than 1 trillion gallons of water—five times what L.A. uses in a year—but provides only around 10 percent of the city’s drinking water, from about 50 still-usable wells. Water from the rest, more than half the wells the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power once operated, remains laced with the aerospace solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) that were deposited during Lockheed Martin’s wartime heyday and discovered in the 1980s. “We’ve moved wells around, sunk new well fields, gone to clean areas,” says Marty Adams, senior assistant general manager of the utility’s water system. “But even those clean areas are starting to see some pollution. You can’t contain it.”

Water suppliers in the San Gabriel Valley have managed to strip away enough of those solvents to continue using their groundwater, but the San Fernando basin has a worse problem: Aerospace and other industries poisoned the water with hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, a carcinogen that tests revealed in 1986. Chromium-6 migrates, saturates soil, and confounds conventional treatment. “Up until a decade ago, there wasn’t a known test to guarantee you got it out,” Adams says.


Root Cause
Trees have a habit of dying without water. Keep them green, and they boost your property value (as much as 20 percent), save on AC, and offer protection from UV rays. A mature native tree that’s not surrounded by turf needs one or two deep waterings a summer, so it pays to research what kind you have. Here, some general rules.
Mature Trees
Water once or twice a month; the water should travel at least 18 inches into the soil. Rather than pouring water at the base, water near the periphery of the canopy by spiraling a soaker hose around it.
Young Trees
Form a basin in the soil around the trunk; three to four feet in diameter should do. They require five gallons two to four times a week. Pour the water slowly from a bucket. Put wood chips or mulch around the base (not too close to the trunk) to retain moisture. If the soil is moist four inches down, no need to rehydrate.

The technology does exist to rehabilitate the San Fernando Valley basin’s water. Doing so will involve, among other feats, forcing it through filters that can remove the tiniest molecule of contamination, a process called reverse osmosis. To that end, the city plans to begin building a $600 million treatment plant within the next six years. Who will pay remains uncertain. Money from last November’s water bond, Proposition 1, might be useful in addition to federal dollars. The Environmental Protection Agency listed the San Fernando basin as a Superfund site in 1986, which entitles its former users to a perpetual funding stream collected from polluters. Since not every perpetrator remains in business, or even alive, though, water bills will likely go up, too. However it gets done, “by 2021,” Adams says, “we will have the world’s largest groundwater treatment facility up and running in the San Fernando Valley. By 2024, we expect to produce a quarter of the city’s water supply from the groundwater basin.”

Once the plume of pollution is contained, the basin can be replenished in a way that natural forces have been severely restrained from doing since the 1940s, when the Army Corps of Engineers began cementing the course of the protean Los Angeles River to stop it from sluicing houses, cars, and livestock into the ocean during every big El Niño year. More water can be directed toward places where it will percolate into the basin—at the Pacoima, Tujunga, and Hansen Dam spreading grounds in the north end of the valley. The city and county are collaborating to deepen and enlarge those infiltration fields. “The day’s coming,” Adams says, “when every drop of water that falls on this county has got to do some good.”

It’s fascinating to hear someone like Adams, who’s been with the LADWP for 31 years, discuss the city’s water supply as if Los Angeles were always working toward a goal of water independence, always looking at every raindrop as a resource. But it’s been only 20 years or so since the conversation started. Even then, it didn’t have much to do with concern over our drinking water supply. It began instead with an emerging revolution to clean up the beach.

In the 1990s, environmental groups all over the country were suing the EPA, which for years had neglected to enforce a clause in the Clean Water Act requiring the agency to set limits for pollution no matter where it came from. In Los Angeles the environmentalists won, and the federal government began holding the cities and counties responsible for the candy wrappers, dirty diapers, half-eaten cheeseburgers, and plastic six-ring beer holders that washed from their streets into storm drains and ultimately the sea. Since Los Angeles keeps its storm drains and sewer systems separate, the easiest way to cleanse storm water is to keep it on land: “Slow it, spread it, sink it” goes the mantra of natural-treatment advocates.

Such a shift, however, ran counter to decades of law in Southern California, intended to keep people and water apart. Building codes in both the city and the county required lots to be built at a 2 percent slope so all the water that fell on them would pour into the street, supposedly protecting foundations from being undermined. Rain barrels for catching roof runoff and larger tanks, known as cisterns, to hold drainage required permits from the state water board to install. Ordinances would have to be changed and codes rewritten, which meant that officials at the public agencies governing water and sewers and storm drains would have to start talking to one another as well as to environmentalists and architects—something they just didn’t do.

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Inside the Orange Counter Water District’s water recycling facility

Photography by Spencer Lowell

It was to bring those people together that Dorothy Green, the late firebrand founder of one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Heal the Bay, helped to establish the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (later renamed the Council for Watershed Health) in 1995. “Her goal,” says Suzanne Dallman, a Cal State Long Beach geography professor who served on the council in the early 2000s, “was to make them see how much they had in common.”

Among the things Green had to prove was that while storm water runoff ferries pollution from streets into the ocean, the water itself isn’t necessarily as polluted as people supposed. In 2000, she secured the first of what would amount to $10 million in state and federal grants for the Watershed Council and hired Dallman to manage a study of storm water’s effect on the aquifer. Dallman’s work went on for six years at six sites around the county. In most places the groundwater quality didn’t change at all when mixed with storm water. In some places it improved. In the ancient alluvium that makes up most of the Los Angeles basin, oil, grease, and bacteria break down. Even viruses disappear, given enough time.

In addition, Dallman found that capturing three-quarters of an inch of rain could add 125 billion gallons to the region’s groundwater basins. Then as now, those basins have room to store three times as much. Suddenly Los Angeles had a new water supply. “That was our proof of concept,” Dallman says. But a member of the study’s technical advisory committee, Mark Buehler at the Metropolitan Water District, thought that Dallman’s research hadn’t gone far enough. He wanted Dallman and her crew to actually build something. So around 2004, she and her chief collaborator, Rebecca Drayse—then director of the natural urban systems group at TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit—headed to Sun Valley, a neighborhood of modest ranch-style homes too hastily developed to have bothered with storm drains.

The 7700 block of Elmer Avenue was once a place where standing water, and sometimes standing waves, amassed in the feeblest storms. Dallman and Drayse worked with landscape architects as well as environmental and city engineers to draft plans to line the block with native plant gardens that would capture rainfall, which would then collect in buried basins and seep down into the aquifer. The city, especially, was resistant at first. “They said, ‘Well, we’ll let you do permeable asphalt,’ ” Dallman remembers. “ ‘Then if it doesn’t work, we can just pave it over.’ ” The $2.7 million project was completed in 2011 and now contributes an average of 5.4 million gallons to the groundwater supply each year. The flooding stopped, too. In the process Elmer Avenue has become a national model for urban renewal. Only 2 percent of the block’s residents considered their street walkable before the retrofit; now 92 percent do. The LADWP broke ground on a copycat project in August for another flood-prone street in Pacoima.

“People love Elmer Avenue for its multiple benefits,” says David Sedlak, a professor of mineral engineering at UC Berkeley and the author of an influential book, Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource. But from a water supply standpoint, he says, a one-block retrofit is not the answer to our problems because it can’t drink in enough storm water to make the most out of a year like 1992. A better project in water supply terms, he argues, is the $52 million Rory M. Shaw Wetlands Park currently under construction in Sun Valley, north of Burbank airport. A collaboration between the City and County of Los Angeles, the wetlands park will turn a 46-acre former landfill into a real live functioning wetland, with ponds and swales to collect storm water and pump it into Sun Valley Park, where underground basins already recharge the groundwater. Named for a city engineer who in 2005 fell into a sinkhole he was trying to repair during a raging storm, the wetland has the capacity to capture nearly 200 million gallons of water per year.


Drop Drill
You can do more with the rain that sloughs off your roof; each square foot of surface yields about 0.6 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall, so a 1,000-square-foot roof would yield about 600 gallons.
In the tank
A 50-gallon rain barrel is about $100; with a $75-plus rebate, you’ve slashed the cost considerably. The volume isn’t great, but every drop counts. It might take a half hour a year to clean and maintain a barrel, says Scott Mathers, founder of Hey!Tanks LA.
Soul Cistern
Common in Australia, cisterns offer more serious water savings and are, gallon for gallon, cheaper than rain barrels, provided they’re not buried. “Above-ground is so much less expensive than belowground because of the labor involved to excavate and backfill and compact and haul that excess soil away,” says Mathers, who adds that a 5,000-gallon tank aboveground might cost $5,000; belowground, three times that.

Beyond such signature projects, the LADWP’s Adams has faith in what he calls a “distributed” water supply—lots that retain water until it soaks into the aquifer, houses that catch rain from rooftops. Three years ago Los Angeles began requiring that most new development, instead of sloping toward the street, capture the first three-quarters of an inch of each storm’s rainfall—“the first flush”—with rain barrels, permeable pavement, or sunken vegetated strips that act like tiny wetlands, called bioswales. Six months later the county followed. The same year Governor Brown signed the Rainwater Capture Act of 2012, allowing anyone to harvest rainwater without having to obtain a permit.

Dallman’s latest research, a collaboration among economists and engineers from other Cal State University campuses, aims to quantify both the energy savings and the economic benefit of that water. Dallman and her peers compared the cost and energy requirements of importing water (the State Water Project consumes 3 percent of California’s electricity) with the cost and energy required to harvest rain with barrels and cisterns. They determined that catching rainwater from rooftops benefits both city budgets and the climate. In the Ballona Creek Watershed—an area composed of parts of L.A., Culver City, Inglewood, and Playa Vista—the researchers found that if half the residential and commercial buildings used 55-gallon rain barrels to capture runoff from their roofs, they could harvest a year’s supply for 9,000 single-family homes and rack up a net savings of $137 million over a 30-year period.

Australia emerged from a 13-year drought in 2009 with laws in cities like Sydney and Adelaide requiring that cisterns accompany new homes; nearly half the residents of Adelaide now capture rainwater. One day they might all plug into a water network, not unlike how solar panels connect to the electrical grid. The technology is under development: A Toronto company, RainGrid, has begun a pilot project in Ontario. So far it consists of one lonely cistern, “but we expect to have a community-wide system running within a year,” says Natalija Fisher, director of strategic initiatives for the company. “We’re calling it ‘Rain Barrels 2.0.’ ” Here in Los Angeles the DWP has a ten-location pilot with interconnected cisterns in the offing; if one fills up before another, it will send the overflow in that direction. People like Adams view the technology as a small but significant contribution to the city’s water supply future.

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On a miasmic day this past July, I stood overlooking the massive concrete basins of the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System, where the world’s largest sewage-to-drinking-water recycling facility begins its work. One at a time, to the scream of an air compressor, each basin filled with brown, sudsy water—brown from what engineer Mehul Patel euphemistically called “organics”; sudsy from the leftover detergent used to clean the filters. The plant, which opened in 2008, recycles 100 million gallons a day from the Orange County Sanitation District for delivery to its 19 member agencies. Recycled water contributes roughly a third of the agency’s overall water supply, 70 percent of which comes from groundwater. The problems the operation encounters are mostly good ones. “We’re not getting as much wastewater as we used to,” said spokesperson Gina Ayala. “Too much conservation.”

Flexible polymer membranes enable the Orange County plant to accomplish with a single six-inch-diameter filter what used to require a 400-square-foot pit of gravel, sand, and silt. “It’s the space saving that really made this technology take off,” Patel told me. Every filter is packed with thousands of minuscule polypropylene straws that have been punctured with millions of microscopic holes, each 1/300th the size of a human hair. The holes are small enough to filter protozoa like giardia and cryptosporidium; they’d do fine with lake water on your hiking trip, but they can’t catch pollutants like the ones that plague the San Fernando Valley’s groundwater. That’s where reverse osmosis takes over.

“From a chemistry standpoint, the water that comes out of the plant is almost too pure,” Patel said. Minerals have to be added back in or the distilled water will corrode pipes and over time leach minerals from consumers’ gastrointestinal tracts. Yet the water goes through one more, sometimes redundant, step: Ultraviolet light exposure and hydrogen peroxide combine to destroy anything that’s left. The water destined for consumers’ taps then moves to spreading grounds in Anaheim, where it mingles with rainwater, the Santa Ana River, and the ancient contents of the aquifer.

We arrived at a trio of stainless steel sinks, each containing water—dark, yellow, and clear—from different stages of the treatment process. Ayala handed me a plastic cup, which I filled with the clear, finished water. It tasted flat and supersoft; if you used it to wash your hair, it wouldn’t get the soap out. The water needed minerals and time in the ground.

Orange County never had much public resistance to its wastewater reuse because the agency spent ten years educating people. District staff threw parties, held seminars, worked water treatment into the school curriculum. It was everything that didn’t happen in 2000, when Los Angeles was ready to embark on its own groundwater replenishment effort with wastewater cycled through the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.

“What put the kibosh on it was a mayor’s race,” says Doug Walters, a 26-year veteran at L.A.’s Bureau of Sanitation and director of the city’s “One Water” plan for the future. A candidate in that race, Joel Wachs, had adopted a label coined by an Encino activist: “toilet to tap.” A widely circulated cartoon showed a woman at her kitchen sink with a toilet right above it, and “the switchboards at City Hall went crazy,” Walters remembers.

The city had sunk $55 million into what was being called the East Valley Water Recycling Project, which had the blessings of the state water board, public health officials, and the EPA. But as the first flows were to be released to the Hansen Dam spreading grounds, then-City Attorney James Hahn, who was also a mayoral candidate, shut the project down; once Hahn was elected, he reaffirmed the shutdown order, effectively putting an end to a state-of-the-art wonder that would have established L.A. as a leader in urban water efficiency.


Drain Gain
Drain1If you’ve poked around the topic, you already know: Using water from your washer is the simplest way to go gray; a DIY setup might cost $700, less than half of what a pro might charge. “If you’re a handy person and already have some pipe-gluing experience, the indoor part will take no more than two hours,” says Sherry Bryan, program director of the Central Coast Greywater Alliance. “And the outdoor component, no more than half a day.” Permits are required only if you want to tap into shower or sink water, and for that you’d need a specialist such as Hey!Tanks LA. Bryan’s tip? Keep it simple: “Gray water is produced in the home, goes directly to the landscape, and falls onto mulch basins that allow the water to slowly percolate into the [soil] and irrigate plants.”

As it stands now, Los Angeles won’t get around to recycling water for drinking until 2022—and then only 13 million gallons a day. By 2035, the daily recharge to the San Fernando Valley Groundwater Basin will rise to 27 million gallons, displacing a mere 5.4 percent of our imports.

City planning memos suggest Tillman might purify 100 million gallons a day, and some of the 91 billion gallons the city’s Hyperion Treatment Plant flushes annually into the ocean might come back through the plant, too. For now, however, the 2022 goal and its $415 million price tag loom large. If Tillman doesn’t mimic Orange County’s standard, Walters says, “ it would be a harder sell to our public.” The city can’t afford to lose the public again.

Without the public, the whole scheme falls apart. Because no matter how happily we drink our recycled toilet water or capture rain in our networked cisterns, we’ll need to use less water. Conservation and efficiency, those twin dullards that burden every water supply conversation, matter more in the immediate present than all the other solutions put together. We’re pretty good at it: Per capita water use in Los Angeles is down 37 percent since 1975, to 113 gallons a day, factoring in each resident’s share in burst water mains, leaky pipes, and overirrigated parks. Now all we need to do is get better at it. By half.

Whether we can, or will, depends on how firmly the pain of this drought lodges itself in the collective memory. “There’s a classic quote from John Steinbeck from the book East of Eden,” says Peter Gleick, cofounder and director of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a think tank on water and the environment: “ ‘And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.’ ”


Judith Lewis Mernit is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in High Country News, Sierra, Audubon, The Atlantic, and Capital & Main.

Water in L.A.

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