Floods, Fires, Drought and…Hope? How L.A. Will Survive the Coming Apocalypse

With Southern California reeling from its latest plunge into the atmospheric river, get ready for further climate challenges over the next 30 years. The good news: there’s a plan

You didn’t need to be one of the 8 million Californians under flood watch recently to feel like adding a life jacket to your disaster “go bag.” Nine atmospheric rivers in two weeks dumped nearly 12 inches of rain, twice the normal amount, on California in the first two weeks of January. Some areas of the state received 50 percent to 70 percent of their annual rainfall in 16 days. Avalanches, mudslides, and waterlogged basements and streets turned the Golden State into a soggy disaster movie. Damages have topped $1 billion. “By some estimates, 22 to 25 trillion gallons of water have fallen over the course of the last 16 to 17 days—the stacking of these atmospheric rivers the likes of which we’ve not experienced in our lifetimes,” Governor Newsom said as the ninth storm approached from the Pacific.

As we wait for the next lashing by water or fire, climate change denial is wearing thin. We can turn away from pictures of India’s deadly heat wave or Pakistan’s apocalyptic floods. But we have entered the era in which we can’t ignore our own wildfires, drought, and deluges. What we don’t yet know is how and how much our lives will have to change with the climate.

Climate scientists speak the language of data. They are not in the business of painting scenarios or predicting how human life will change. They leave the dystopic details to science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, for example, opens with a “wet bulb” heat wave that wipes out millions in India. In real life, last spring’s soaring temperatures on the subcontinent killed man and beast alike, and drove crowds under bridges for scarce shade.

Like that science fiction wet bulb, much of what scientists predicted about the climate more than 40 years ago has come true in California.

Drought? Check. Deadly heat waves? Check. Wildfires erasing communities? Check. Relentless rainfall? Check. Landslides and mudslides? Check. Millions under flood watch? Check.

Odds of the dreaded megastorm hitting:

Estimated damage:

Although predicted decades ago, the pace of climate change has ramped up. Some scientists believe the January storms might not have been caused by climate change but were instead part of a drought-and-deluge cycle that has influenced California for centuries. Still, there is no question that human-caused climate change will increase the severity and frequency of these epic storms, just as it has increased the intensity of fires and drought. Our grandchildren will certainly live on a much-altered planet. But many of us alive today will see the effects in our lifetimes.

We asked California’s top water and climate experts to look into the decades ahead and describe what awaits in 2050, in terms of infrastructure, nature, culture, demography, agriculture, and health. How dystopic the outlook looks seems to depend on the innate optimism or pessimism of the climate expert you talk to.

But all of the experts we spoke with agree that, in 2050, Los Angeles and California will look different. The landscape will be less green because of mass tree deaths and less grass. Fires and heat waves will no longer be “unprecedented” but absorbed into life’s challenges. It will be impossible to ignore sea level rise swamping roads and the massive infrastructure that will be in place to mitigate it. Extinctions will have happened: Goodbye, oaks, maybe some species of fish.

There is also a 50-50 chance of the dreaded megastorm, of which Californians had a devastating preview during January’s record-breaking rain events. The storm could turn the agricultural heart of the state, the Central Valley, into a sea for months or years and cause $1 trillion in damage. The odds are unavoidable because climate mitigation measures in place now will not change the global climate trajectory in just three decades.

There is an upside: By 2050, California will be a global model of conservation out of necessity. Policymakers will have no choice but to come up with the money for infrastructure to store and reclaim the water that falls and trickles into the ocean. Last year, Newsom announced an ambitious plan for expanding state water storage capacity above and below ground by 4 million acre-feet, expanding groundwater recharge and wastewater recycling projects, runoff capture during storms, and desalination of ocean water and salty groundwater. A new state plan approved in January acknowledges the strong possibility of a megastorm in the Central Valley and seeks $30 billion in investments in flood mediation over the next 30 years.

By 2050, billions will have been invested in the world’s biggest water recycling system. Massive underwater reservoirs, new seawalls, and man-made green space watersheds will change urban landscapes. Homes and businesses will be using new, more efficient appliances. Millions more electric cars will be scooting along the freeways. People will have changed their habits and likes: more vegetarians, less steak.

Maybe even fewer golfers.

Here are 11 ways that climate change will alter how Los Angeles looks, eats, works, and plays by 2050.


1. You Will Be Drinking Your Pee

It won’t be yellow, though. Massive, solar-powered water recycling plants, the two largest in the world, will be recycling 100 percent of water in the Los Angeles area. “Astronauts have been drinking their pee for a long time. It’s not rocket science,” says attorney Felicia Marcus, former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “You will start seeing it at scale. There will be these big underground cisterns that will capture rain when it comes in big bursts, and some of it will go to the treatment plant and some of it will go to groundwater basins.” Some of these cistern projects made the news during the January rains as the question of how to both survive the flooding and save the water for drier times suddenly occupied people’s attention.

Two L.A. plants, Hyperion and the Metropolitan Water District, are in the process of multi-billion-dollar overhauls and will be online by 2035. Together, with a recycling plant in Orange County, the facilities will allow Angelenos to recycle about 400 million gallons of water daily. The water might even be cleaner and safer than it is today. Recent discoveries regarding the health effects of PFAS (the chemicals in Teflon) and other contaminants will have forced wastewater plants to operate at a higher level of purity.

“Technological developments are happening like a revolution,” Marcus says. “And we will be able to use every drop of water better.”

2. Lots More Trees, Less Concrete

Whether or not a megastorm happens, the city will always see rain. Plans are underway to capture as much of that stormwater as possible in multiple green space watershed systems. Hardscape that doesn’t absorb water and increases evaporation will be replaced with nature projects and holding reservoirs around parts of L.A. that are urban jungles today. “You will see that green space is at the core of the stormwater system,” Marcus says.

TreePeople, an organization of tree planters in L.A. formed 50 years ago, will not be alone in its efforts. Whole communities will be engaged in tree planting, which, in addition to providing cooling and shade, is “water well spent,” as one scientist said, because deep roots pull excess water down rather than allowing it to be wasted in evaporation. “The urban landscape will transform, and that will be the most visible aspect,” Marcus says.


3. Lawns Will Be As Taboo As Smoking In Public

More than 50 percent of California’s residential water use right now goes to outdoor ornamental landscaping, with the biggest chunk of that being private lawns. Homeowners and hired gardeners waste water in a daily battle against nature, which is trying to turn your grass yellow. “Your preference for deep shades of green is literally hemorrhaging water,” says Michael J. Cohen, senior researcher at the Pacific Institute. Cohen says the aesthetic preference for green, green grass dates to eighteenth-century England. “If you could afford not to farm, you could put a rolling green lawn next to your house, signaling you were rich enough not to grow vegetables.”

By 2050, through a combination of regulation and social opprobrium, the most ostentatious lawns will be replaced with native planting. And people will simply let their grass turn the color of California’s golden hills.

There will be exceptions: with wealth inequality unlikely to alter its trajectory by 2050, people in wealthier communities will be indifferent to gigantic water bills and the scorn of the plebes. “I suspect there will be more public condemnation, like smoking,” Cohen says. “I wouldn’t say there will be no grass. Sports fields will continue to be grass. There will be grass in parks and open spaces where people congregate. But all these various grassy places between sidewalk and street, no.” Felicia Marcus calls lawns the “low-hanging fruit” of water scarcity measures and seconded Cohen’s prediction. “Lawns will become a luxury and even an anachronism. They will be shunned like not having a low-flow toilet.”

The End of Lawns might arrive much sooner than 2050. During September’s heat wave, applications soared for L.A.’s turf program, which subsidizes replacing grass lawns with less-water-depleting native species.

4. Schoolchildren Will Have Many More Smoke Days

Like snow days, but not as fun, smoke days for California schoolchildren are already “an observed reality,” says Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist studying extreme weather events. By 2050, they will have become routine.

Californians are already beginning to factor fires into their work and leisure time. On high-fire-risk days in parts of California now, civilians routinely check the smoke and fire maps. Risk has influenced other decisions. Backpackers and hikers increasingly decide when to hike based on whether they will have to endure smoke or outrun flames. Because of longer, more-ferocious fire seasons, the Pacific Trail hiking season now begins earlier every year. State and regional parks increasingly lock their gates on hot and high-fire-risk days.

By 2050, measures or precautions that seem novel now will have fully permeated California’s outdoor culture. “It is a big shift that enters into everyone’s thinking even now,” says Swain. “We will continue to see that wildfire season shapes more and more of our lives.”

The 2020 wildfire season, one of the many unsettling events during that pandemic year, was historic. orange skies, millions locked down, and masked not just against a virus but also the air quality. The last two years have not matched 2020 for apocalyptic flavor, but Swain and other experts expect the same sort of dramatic and widespread wildfires, and smoke storms will, by 2050, be common and affect all corners of California. Forests will burn not because of less rain but because increasing temperatures and fewer trees increases the rate of evaporation of what water does fall.

On the upside: unlike, say, the 1970s, when parents thought nothing of letting children play outside in wildfire smoke, “at least we know smoke is bad for kids,” Swain says. “It is probably better that some of these things are changing now. It means we are adjusting, and finding adaptations that are the smarter thing to do.”

One of the adjustments could be a return to planned fires.“All the natural fires were removed 150 years ago,” Swain says, “the brush clearings that would have happened through lightning or cultivated fires. We extinguished the lightning fires and made indigenous fires illegal. Foresters thought dense forests were a great idea, and that led to unhealthy forest management in the twentieth century.”

5. New York might have to do without lettuce in winter. And almonds won’t be cheap

By 2050, the ongoing conversation—if not war—over water allocation will intensify, but some truces will have had to be signed. Water is currently overallocated for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, with agriculture getting 80 percent of it.

“There is a lot of political pressure to change distribution of water,” says Stanford University professor Noah Diffenbaugh, an expert on the environment and climate change. “People say, well, agriculture is only 2 percent of state GDP, so why is it getting 80 percent of the water? And the answer is, well, agriculture is 100 percent of the food.”

By 2050, priorities will have changed as water allocation changes and less water is diverted from the Colorado River and other shrinking sources. Fewer acres will be farmed. Cold states might have to do without California lettuce in winter. There will be fewer almonds, as their share of allocated water will not be enough to sustain the millions of trees that have been planted in recent decades. Nevertheless, by 2050, food will be grown with far less water waste than today. “We will not be out of food,” says Marcus. “We don’t have to worry that we will go hungry.”

6. California wine will still be a thing

In 2050, California will still have its Mediterranean climate, but as in the actual Mediterranean, average temperatures will be higher. That means that some of its wine grapes will not be thriving, and vintners will have had to accommodate by growing more heat-resistant varieties.

Diffenbaugh raised alarms among Napa winegrowers when he predicted a few years ago that wine grapes are sensitive to extreme heat and the areas in California where the highest-value premium wine grapes are grown now are likely to experience substantial heat increases. Diffenbaugh has backpedaled a little. “No more wine in California? That is not what our research shows.”

In 2050, vines will still be around.The wine industry is “an order of magnitude larger than the value of the wine itself,” Diffenbaugh adds. “It is not just what’s in the bottle. The impacts of changing temperatures or water availability on the quality of wine grapes are not irrelevant, but it gets translated through the full experience, and there is a lot that growers and vintners can do to adapt to a changing climate.” Some of those changes might have to be put in place now because investments take a while to amortize in the wine business. “It is a challenge to change,” he says. “Even on a 30-year time scale, a decision to grow something different can change again because the climate can change.”

Winemakers are already busy planting new varieties, acquiring vineyards in less-challenging areas, and developing more heat-resistant clones of existing grapes, say industry experts. Meanwhile, new wine-growing areas are opening up as California microclimates continue to warm. If, for example, Napa becomes too hot for Pinot Noir, the cooler Carmel Valley could be a promising area for growing the grape.

7. There will be a great migration

For decades, Americans have flocked west to Sun Belt states, California included. By 2050, a reverse migration of people fleeing heat and smoke may be underway. Already, “people are spending $500 a month or more to run air-conditioners for five to seven months a year,” says the Pacific Institute’s Cohen.

Plenty of Californians might be indifferent to those costs, but millions will be directly vulnerable to deadly heat, including farmworkers. So-called wet bulb temperatures, in which humidity and heat combine to turn deadly, will be more common.

So far, California has not seen an exodus of residents moving back to, say, Detroit, where there is ample water and less ferocious summer heat waves. One can buy a house in some of the Rust Belt states for less than the cost of the electric cars Californians will be compelled to buy after 2035. “That is not the migration trend we have seen yet, but maybe it will happen,” says UCLA’s Swain.

Californians are already fleeing isolated communities in response to individual fire disasters. Two years ago, the entire town of Paradise left one morning and never returned.

By 2050, many more fire-ravaged communities will have been abandoned. “If the whole town burns down, you might decide not to rebuild,” Cohen says.

Limited access to water will also create ghost towns by 2050. Some California towns and communities will find it too difficult to manage water without being connected to the greater state system. On the other hand, too much water will have pushed other people to move. Once a “big one” rain event drenches the state, some Californians will be flooded out and never come back.

“I don’t think it happens preemptively, but in the wake of disasters, a lot of people won’t go back,” Swain predicts. “If they do return, it will be a demographic shift, where rural communities will be transformed into vacation enclaves for the wealthy as old-timers are replaced with people who can afford the insurance.”

Climate refugees from nearby states facing severe water shortages and even longer deadly hot spells will be coming into California. The state has water: its challenge is the inconvenient timing of sea level rise, floods, and the limits of reservoir or storage size and location. In the desert megalopolises of Phoenix and Las Vegas, where millions live, there will be much less water and nowhere to get more. “You can only squeeze so much juice from the orange,” Swain says.

Stanford’s Diffenbaugh agrees migrants might be coming to the state by 2050. “I get asked a lot [if] what’s happening in California is worse than anywhere. The reality is there is flooding in the Midwest and storm surges from landfalling tropical cyclones in the Northeast. There is not a place to move where there is no impact from climate change.”


8. Every house in Los Angeles will have air conditioning

Today, it is still possible to live in a house along the coast and rely on the ocean breeze to keep you cool during the hot months. By 2050, heat waves like the one last  September will be the norm, not the outlier, during summer. And air-conditioning everywhere will be as much of a household necessity as heating systems in houses in cold states.

“Heat waves like the worst we have ever gone through just now, it won’t be the worst one,” Swain says. “We may see these every year. We will see ones like we just saw with regularity, and it will be ho-hum, not holy crap.” So air-conditioning will be a change in highly populated places closer to the ocean. And that will affect anyone selling or buying a house. Until now, “living in Santa Monica, people wouldn’t have looked for AC,” Swain says. “Now you do, especially if it is also smoky.”

The need for more AC might seem minor, but it is actually a huge issue for the energy sector. All those new cooling systems will put catastrophic stress on the state’s electric grid, which barely survived last summer’s record-breaking heat. Rolling blackouts— currently a phenomenon more common in developing nations—could become the norm.

The question of who has access to AC and who doesn’t will be a matter of social justice, not merely a  quirk of living in a twenty-first-century climate.

9. L.A. Will Be an Oasis

While l.a.will plant thousands of trees over the next 30 years, the rest of California will be steadily losing them, some species never to return within many lifetimes, if ever. The state is already experiencing “mass forest mortality.” It started in the conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada, and now anyone traveling in the affected areas can see hundreds of millions of brown pine trees. The browning is widespread, but not yet everywhere.

In 30 years, the brown band will be common in lower and middle elevations. “It will be gradual, then increasing, and then sudden and dramatic,” UCLA’s Swain says of the forests. The land they leave behind won’t all be brown, though. “If you go into the high-intensity fire footprints now, they are not barren grounds. It might even be beautiful, covered with wildflowers. But it’s not a forest anymore.”

Swain says forest shrinkage, through fire and drought, cannot be stopped. “In the past, a fire or drought would kill trees and they would re-sprout when it got wet and cool again. But it’s not getting wet and cool. Normally, it takes a couple of decades and the forest comes back, but that’s not the process anymore.”

Some species could be gone forever by 2050. “There is a lot of happy talk about habitat restoration,” Felicia Marcus says. “But we are likely to see more species go extinct. I am hoping our wonderful oaks will survive, but they are not meant for hot weather.”

The forest deaths at mountain elevations will likely not be matched in L.A., says Swain. The city’s iconic palms and other trees, almost all of them non-native, will remain important enough to the urban ecosystem to be watered. Trees transpire water more slowly than grass and provide shade which, in turn, cools the earth. “Los Angeles is an ecological surreality, and I think that will be even more true in the future,” Swain says. “If L.A. actually gets it together with water reclamation, the city might be increasingly like an oasis, greener than the surrounding areas.”


10. More Big, Beautiful Walls

Thirty years from now, California will be much more watery than it ever was in living memory. Parts of the Central Valley might be inundated for months. Parts of the Imperial Valley, too.

L.A. will not be spared. By 2050, Hollywood and tourism will potentially be interrupted by monthslong, persistent atmospheric rivers and resulting floods. Rising seas will force low-lying beach towns like Santa Monica, Long Beach, and Marina del Rey to shell out funds for mitigation. LAX could be occasionally out of commission. UCLA’s ArkStorm 2.0 study last year predicted that Orange County and, in the most extreme scenarios, all of L.A., could be underwater.

Millions living in the Bay Area, where there is a lot of linear coastline but no cliffs as in parts of Southern California, will see new walls and other infrastructure. “Most Californians say, ‘Oh, the beaches,’ when they think of sea level rise,” Swain says. “But it’s actually these Bay Area coastal-facing properties that are at risk.” Already, enormous amounts of critical infrastructure, the San Francisco and Oakland airports and parts of the 101 freeway, are within three or four feet of sea level. Roads now routinely close during king tides.

By 2050, Northern California will have spent billions on new seawalls and other protective infrastructure. The sparsely populated delta area near San Francisco, once an enormous estuary 20 feet below sea level before engineered drainage, will have been given back to water again. Most of Silicon Valley is within three feet of sea level. The Googleplex and Facebook campuses have bay levees on their properties and will likely have to bankroll significant flood-protection systems.

11. Goodbye, Cowboy; Goodbye, Cow

We still associate the American West with cattle drives, Lonesome Dove, lassos, and steak—a myth that persists in California.

At some point, raising cattle will no longer be viable here. Feeding cattle is simply too water-intensive. Alfalfa, one of the thirstiest crops and a chief source of cattle feed, by some measures uses as much as 80 percent of the Colorado River water allocated to state agriculture. A growing percentage of California alfalfa is exported to arid countries in the Middle East that are so water-desperate, they have been banning or discouraging irrigation of crops like alfalfa. By 2050, it’s likely that companies engaged in that export will no longer be doing business out of the Imperial Valley.

In 2050, some herds may still roam our golden hills, including the ranches of Ventura County, but their days in both Southern and Northern California are likely numbered. Ranches near L.A. will have been repeatedly threatened by wildfires and reduced by drought, making them less economically viable, to the point of driving out today’s holdouts. In 30 years, dairy and beef cattle might have been or be in the process of moving to wetter parts of the country. “By the end of this century, we might find that it is easier to range them in Nebraska or Canada,” says Cohen. “There will not be enough irrigation or rainfall to pasture these cattle, and alfalfa will be too expensive.”

The removal of cattle could coincide with a shift in meat-eating habits overall. In hotter climates, there is more disease, and it is quite possible that something, the mammalian equivalent of avian flu, will affect cattle, prompting people to stop eating beef for a while. Beef consumption is already decreasing in the U.S., while consumption of other meats is increasing, says Cohen. Some predict that, socially, beef-eating might be joining cigarettes and grass lawns as L.A. taboos. The city has traditionally been on the cutting edge of lifestyle changes that the rest of the country picks up on. By 2050, changing availability and tastes might have pushed restaurateurs to switch to more environmentally friendly proteins, including lab-grown, like the chicken already cultured at Upside Foods in Berkeley. “We will probably see a shrinkage of alfalfa and hay, and some dairy will move to wetter climates,” Marcus says. “And I think people will eat less meat, although I don’t think everyone will be vegetarian.”

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