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L.A. No Longer Water Hog?

By Julie Sevrens Lyons
San Jose Mercury News 5/2007

LOS ANGELES – For years, Southern Californians had a reputation that’s been difficult to shake: Water hogs. Resource stealers. Movie stars filling up their swimming pools and washing their fancy cars with our water.

But as a record dry spell envelops the state’s most populous city – fewer than 3 inches of rain have fallen on downtown Los Angeles since October – water officials throughout the state will tell you that, at least these days, the stereotype’s all wrong.

Thanks to years of concerted conservation, there’s no water crisis in the Los Angeles Basin right now.

Southland water agencies have invested millions in projects such as rubber dams to capture more water, and residents have largely done their part by installing low-flow toilets and shower heads, drought-resistant plants and efficient water sprinklers. Even Northern Californians are taking notice.

“In some ways, they’re leading the state in many of their conservation efforts,” said Toby Goddard, water conservation manager for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department. “I’ve seen a real turnaround.”

Less reliant on imports

Indeed, the Los Angeles area is much less reliant on imported water than it used to be. In 1991, near the end of the last big statewide drought, Southern Californians got about two-thirds of their water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Now, that figure is down to about half.

It isn’t just that Los Angeles water agencies are able to capture more of the local rainwater. Angelenos are also using less of it. Across six Southern California counties, per-capita water use dropped from about 220 gallons per day in 1990 to about 185 gallons per day in 2003, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. By comparison, Santa Clara County residents used 170 gallons per day in 1990 and 174 gallons in 2003, according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

“We’re now using the same amount of water today as we did 25 years ago – despite a population increase of 1 million. That’s a statistic we’re very proud of,” said Thomas Gackstetter, manager of water conservation for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The city department is the major water retailer for the city, supplying 4 million people.

“We’ve done a lot to make sure we’re not as dependent on imported water,” said Bob Muir, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The wholesaler provides water to 18 million Southern Californians in six counties.

Muir points to improvements made in many areas, including conservation, water recycling, groundwater cleanup and water storage.

Lesson learned

The last drought was “a very valuable lesson,” as well as the impetus behind the district’s conservation efforts, Muir said. The district spent $2 billion to build Diamond Valley Lake, the largest reservoir in Southern California, which was completed in 1999.

The water agency also has boosted groundwater storage. Just last week, it announced a long-term agreement allowing the agency to store near Bakersfield enough water for as many as 700,000 families for an entire year.

So, even though this year is a “perfect storm of dryness,” as Muir calls it, “we’re in a much better place than we would have been 20 years ago.”

Many water experts agree.

“I think Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, has done very well over the years in reducing their inefficient use of water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a non-profit think tank that works extensively on water issues. “They’re doing the same sorts of things everyone else is doing – they just did some of them earlier and more aggressively.”

In East Los Angeles, for example, a job program was created to teach the unemployed how to audit existing toilets and install low-flow models where needed, Gleick said. Throughout the county, 16 rubber dams – some measuring up to 10 feet high – are installed in natural river beds to be inflated immediately following storms, allowing water officials to capture as much local storm water as possible.

The dams keep the water from flowing into the ocean and are used to help fill the groundwater basins – pores in soil, sand and rock beneath the Earth’s surface that serve as natural water-storage systems.

In December, the district announced that more than 5,000 customers had participated in a years-long pilot program to upgrade their sprinkler systems, purchasing equipment that irrigates the landscape when it needs it, rather than according to a preset schedule. The move, the district figures, will save nearly 1 million gallons of water a day.

The water agency also offers rebates to residents who purchase water-efficient toilets and clothes washers. Home builders are given financial incentives for installing low-flow toilets, “smart sprinklers” and drought-resistant “California friendly” landscaping. In 2005 alone, the district issued about 300,000 rebates for devices that are now saving nearly 3 billion gallons of water a year in Southern California.

‘No panic yet’

So although it is bone-dry in Los Angeles, “there’s no panic yet,” said Adam Walden, a senior civil engineer in the water resources division of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. (Torrential rains that two years ago filled up reservoirs also helped.)

Still, Walden said, “we currently are looking at new ways for water conservation.”

That’s a wise idea, Gleick said. As much as the independent analyst applauds Los Angeles water officials for what they have done, he criticizes them for what they haven’t.

Even though radio ads urging consumers to conserve water should begin airing later this month in Southern California, Gleick says there hasn’t been a big push this year to get customers to cut back on their consumption.

“I think perhaps they are a little complacent,” he said. “It’s really dry in Southern California, and if next year is wet, they’re fine. But if next year is dry, they’re going to be sorry they didn’t do more this year.”