Thankful on 37 gallons of water a day

November 24, 2011 § 11 Comments

You know how everyone always says there’s no way Angelenos could live on local water alone?

I had to test this assumption as my warm-up to a standard Thanksgiving exercise, naming something I’m grateful for: freshwater and all the lovelies it supports, in the myriad chain of life descending from the availability of freshwater.

There are obvious lovelies – cottonwood, willow and sycamore trees along riparian corridors.

And the well-known extirpated and endangered freshwater species – steelhead trout, salmon…

Or the less obvious – cuties like the turbid-delta-dwelling vaquita porpoise, who are squeezed to less than 250 individuals in the Gulf of California, thanks initally to habitat loss and now more hazardously, gillnet/trawler entrapment.  Of course there’s skepticism regarding the loss-of-habitat angle, after all the Colorado River Delta only shrank when Mexico lost 90-95% of Colorado River flows, or as the Center for Biological Diversity says:  “the (vaquita) also suffers by living in a habitat that is today a shadow of its former self. The Colorado River, once a raging torrent that fed a lush floodplain at the delta, has been reduced to a trickle by dams and water diversions to neighboring southwestern states.”

So yes, I am grateful for these wonders – and wonder about our assumptions of need, and the impacts we make to watersheds near and far, and to their beings.  Which brings me back to that original question: can Angelenos do without imported water?

Just for chuckles I added up the “native safe yield” of urbanized Los Angeles County water basins.  (You can find data in the Groundwater Assessment Study at the MWD.)  They pencil out at 413,287 Acre-Feet/Year of withdrawals.  Native safe yield is based on precipitation/runoff-based recharge – not imported water banking.  It’s what we could reasonably use based on available recharge*. This number doesn’t exclude contaminated groundwater and also doesn’t include the potential gain of reused/recharged treated wastewater.

I then got figures for Los Angeles County population, and subtracted the cities that aren’t in the urbanized basin covered by the groundwater basins I added up.  Sorry, Malibu, Palmdale et al, you’re out.  My adjusted population number was 9,889,546.

413,287/9,889,546 = 0.04 AF/person/year

When adjusted to gallons/person/day (g/p/d), that comes to:


“Whoa, Nellie!” you might be thinking. After all, the average Angeleno uses between 96-150 gal/person/day, according to whose figures you use.  And, I grant you, this doesn’t factor in agricultural or industrial uses of water, which are also essential.

But for domestic water use, I say yes.  Or at least, we can get pretty damn close.  As at least half of our consumption goes to lawns, the average Angeleno can right away cut down to 48-75 gal/p/day just by converting to native landscaping, a point brought out in many blogs, including Chance of Rain and Wild Suburbia.

Now I’m a renter and don’t see my water bill, so I can’t tell you how virtuous, or viceful, my consumption habits are (I do like long baths).  But my mother’s high is 40 gal/p/d – and I’ve seen her water bill –  her low has been as low as 20 gal/p/d.  What can I tell you?  She is an ardent practitioner of drought-tolerant landscaping and a child of the New Mexico desert.  Yet she grows apricots and blackberries, and even has a small pond in her yard.

Anyone thinking this is a freakish anomaly should see the statistics for personal water consumption world-wide.  More fun facts accumulated from trolling the internet:

Daily Per Capita Consumption (Average)
Location g/p/d
Israel 56-64 (based on two cities)
Spain 45
SE Queensland, Australia 43 (high-55, low-29)
England 39.6
Germany 30
Barcelona 29 (down from 35 in 1999)
India 28
Palestine (West Bank) 10-12

Note that Spain, particularly Barcelona, Queensland, and Israel/Palestine are relatively comparable in climate to us.  Especially Barcelona.(Sources: Israel & Palestine, Spain, England-Germany, India, Barcelona, Australia)

Here’s how your average Englishman/woman pulls off this low water lifestyle:

England Per Capita Consumption g/day
External Use 0.8
Kitchen & Other 16.6
Toilet Flushing 13.5
Baths & Showers 8.7
total 39.6

(Same source as link to England-Germany above)

Know what made me laugh – besides the nervous laugh contemplating the discipline of a 9-gal shower?  The UK agency that published this report took the tone of, how is it that our water consumption is so much worse than other countries in the European Union?  Meanwhile here in the US, Albuquerque in 2001 described its per capita reductions in consumption – to 135 gal/p/d – as a cheering achievement (“Progress: Better”).  And in Los Angeles, water managers write of demand and need, promoting desalination(1,2) and those inexorable water deliveries that are a major player in putting salmon and vaquita porpoises on the endangered species list.  And next up:  the Mojave River aquifer(links 1,2).  But why do we define need by this apparently overstated “demand” and not the finite stuff, the “native safe yield?”

Proportion of Region's Demands. Water Supply Technical Memorandum, Los Angeles Regional Integrated Water Management Plan, 2006.

Indeed, it’s as if we have no concept of reasonable use, of accounting for our impacts.  As if lawns that seem to be more labored over than enjoyed matter more than the possible extinction of entire species.  For that, I’m sure we can find a way to live with 9-gallon showers.


*And I’m thinking that if we zoned lot coverage limitations for development based on the presence of higher permeability soils, and restored floodplains(you knew I had to say it somewhere, right?), we probably could recharge more – increasing our native safe yield, but that’s math for another day.

Tagged: , , ,

§ 11 Responses to Thankful on 37 gallons of water a day

  • Matt Horns says:

    Thank you for bringing up this issue that almost no one knows anything about.

    I was a graduate student in Geology at Cal State Los Angeles for several years. A professor in a hydro-geology class said that most of the Colorado River’s flow is diverted for agriculture and domestic use, but a lot is wasted and allowed to flow into the ocean.

    I immediately jumped out out of my seat and informed the professor that flows to the Colorado River Delta support an aquatic ecosystem that includes precious biological resources. He backed off, and allowed me to make a presentation the next class about marine mammals and fish species that can only survive when the Colorado River continues to flow to the ocean.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      When I was watershed coordinator my job was actually supposed to be about water conservation…so I researched our source watersheds, and as you say, came across all this information, especially about the Colorado River, that no one talks about. I was shocked that I’d never heard about it.

  • david rowley says:

    It would be a little easier to live on 37 gallons if we could just legally flush the toilet with graywater. Maybe I could get a prescription from my doctor to ease my anguish over wasted water. Rocket

  • Our household water usage is between 120 and 160 gallons/day for a family of five. We wash a lot of clothes, take frequent showers etc. The key, as frequently stated, is reducing water use in the garden: native or Mediterranean type plants and trees, no lawn, hand watering when necessary. It really isn’t hard.

  • Emily Green says:

    This is a great post. Politicking during the last big water bill writing means that LA can set its 20% by 2020 goals against old high use years that make the new targets all but meaningless. The unspoken policy seems to be that chronic waste of current allocations amounts to a kind of water bank, so conservation can be invoked as emergency austerity measures for sudden savings, then relaxed so nobody gets the impression we can actually make do on far less, no matter the consequences to the environment.

  • Mike A says:

    We’ve got a ways to go before the safe yields are actually safe. Most were generated when the watersheds were far less impervious. That said, I love this post!

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Mike, it would be great to know more about when the safe yields were established. If you happen to have any references for that, would be much obliged!

  • jane says:

    thanks for this super great article!

  • the author of this post says:

    It’s interesting to note that in the historical development of the L.A. megalopolis, when so many small cities were forced to join the City of Los Angeles in order to get access to aquifer water and (let’s not forget) sewerage, a few small cities were able to remain independent because of their access to local groundwater. I *think* that this is why both Culver City and Santa Monica were able to avoid joining Los Angeles, although it’s probably not the only reason.

    It’s never been totally clear to me why Los Angeles developed a policy that required annexation to the city in order to get access to municipal water, when they could instead have merely sold the water via a water district, but the policy had clearly changed by the 1980s when the groundwater basin under Santa Monica was found to be contaminated and Santa Monica was forced to start purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District. But the city of Santa Monica now says it is on track to develop (i.e. return to) water self-sufficiency by 2020, as a result of the construction of the water treatment plant completed earlier this year and other measures.

    There’s a fascinating discussion in the book “Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles” (William Alexander McClung) about the ways in which “acts of improving” – including most especially the importation of water – have become seen as Los Angeles’ “primal error,” i.e. original sin, while (for instance) importing fuel to heat Northern cities is not seen as evidence that a city should not exist where it is, or is inherently ‘sinful’. Something very interesting about the moral dimensions we attach to “local water”…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Thankful on 37 gallons of water a day at L.A. Creek Freak.


%d bloggers like this: