Oceans of water, water to waste

July 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

We began by draining our own aquifers, drying up springs and streams, converting a once impressive Mediterranean (not desert) landscape into, well, an urban desert:

“At the date of the settlement of Los Angeles a large portion of the country from the central part of the pueblo to the tide water of the sea through and over which the Los Angeles River now finds its way to the ocean was largely covered with a forest interspersed with tracts of marsh.  From that time until 1825 it was seldom, if in any year, that the river discharged even during the rainy season its waters into the sea.  Instead of having a river way to the sea, the waters spread over the country filling the depressions in the surface and forming lakes, ponds and marshes.” Colonel J.J. Warner, interviewed by James P. Reagan, 1914.  

Next we dried up Owens Lake, made a significant contribution to the depletion of the Bay Delta, and have deprived Mexico of about 90-95% of its historic Colorado River Flows.  And while few in Southern California shed tears for the Delta Smelt, even charismatic species like the Vaquita Porpoise (whose double-whammy is huge habitat loss historically + shrimp trawlers today) suffer in silence while we water our lawns and splash in our private swimming pools (or take very long baths, a personal failing).

And now the LA Times editorial staff is saying it’s time to bring the ocean into the mix.  They admit it’s so costly it will only provide for a small fraction of our water supply.  The enormous start up cost doesn’t scare them off.  They do responsibly point out we need to employ other methods.  But why go here at all?  Desal makes no sense:  it is costly, it is energy intensive at a time when we need to conserve energy, it has impacts to marine life, and it is bien posible that we will be creating hypersaline zones in the ocean near the plants.  

On the other hand, we consume 102 gallons of water per person per day, on average.  Some places consume more – I hear Beverly Hills averages 250-300 gallons/pp/pd and woe-betide-us La Cañada is in the 400-600 gallons/pp/pd range.  France and Spain, our Mediterranean brethren, consume an average of 42 and 69 gallons/pp/pd respectively.  Chic Barcelona averages 37 gallons/pp/pd.   

Clearly we can do better.  For starters, we need a water consumption target that isn’t based on current averages.  We need to decrease overall consumption.  We can easily do this: 50-60% of water consumed in LA goes to yards.  We can change our landscaping.  We can work out safe greywater harvesting – which is currently technically illegal for surface irrigation.  And we can continue to make advances with reusing our wastewater.  I do have serious concerns about pharmaceuticals and other drugs in our wastestream, but either way it’s going in rivers and into the ocean, or into our groundwater.  But most compelling to me are the opportunities to marry urban design with water recharge and river restoration.  We need water.  We also need (desperately) open space & housing.  We could stand to recover some lost and endangered species, like steelhead trout.  And thinking about food security – locally produced food – also makes sense.  

So what to do?  Take the inevitable (and for many inexorable) – urban densification, and be strategic about it.  Plan for greater density, and aggressively create open space around it. Re-establish floodplains, restore rivers.  Let the rivers bring back the fish, and utilize floodplains for parks and agriculture…and flooding and recharge. Find the soils of highest permeability (like in the San Ferndando Valley) and unpave areas below the canyons, let floods flood and groundwater recharge. Need I say it?  Exercise political will for the greater good.

We could re-shape this city, which is so often decried for its placelessness, sprawl, and concrete, into an ecological haven.  The Carlsbad desal plant will generate 50 million gallons of water a day. The Times states it costs between $850-$1500 per acre foot to desalinate ocean water – a cost to Carlsbad of $47.6 to $84 million/yr based on their estimates.  The plant itself will cost in excess of $300 million. Instead of encouraging a wasteful and destructive way of life, how about committing to investing at least as much money to make our landscapes work for us – using the existing natural processes of our region to not only provide us with water, but also bring back the life and environment that made this such an enticing place to early settlers?

Oceans of water – Los Angeles Times.

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