It’s Raining, It’s Pouring! Can We Go Back to Wasting Water?

Flooding in Long Beach, January 22, 2017.

Flooding in Long Beach, January 22, 2017.

With the recent torrential downpour (by LA standards) engulfing the southland, one of the most common questions we’ve heard at LA Waterkeeper has been “is the drought over?”. Implicit—and sometimes explicit—in this question is whether we can go back to our old water-wasting habits.

The short answer to the question of whether the long drought is finally over is ‘no’. However welcome a few days…or even weeks…of rainfall may be to our parched state, they do not make up for over 5 years of historic drought.  While it is true that about a third of the state has officially emerged from drought status, most of California – including all of SoCal – remains at least abnormally dry. In reality, it will take a few years of average to above-average rainfall for us to fully recover from the impacts of the drought.

The longer—and more important—answer is, ‘it doesn’t matter’. Drought, especially historic drought like we have faced in LA over much of the past decade, is a useful tool to raise awareness about the need to be more thoughtful in our water use, but it is not the reason we should conserve water. Smarter water planning is important for a variety of reasons—from saving money on our water bills and making LA more water-secure, to combating climate change and improving the health of our rivers, creeks and coastal waters.

Simply put, California’s historic ‘pump and dump’ approach to water management has had devastating impacts on our environment, and has put our state’s communities and economy at grave risk. The vast majority (80%+) of water Angelenos currently use is pumped throughout California through the State Water Project, LA Aqueduct, the Colorado River and other projects, requiring a massive amount of electricity and at great cost—both economically as well as to the communities and environment where that water originates. In fact, the water sector is the state’s largest energy user, consuming nearly 20% of California’s electricity, over 30% of its natural gas, and 88 billion gallons of diesel fuel each year, resulting in the release of approximately 44 million tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere annually (source).

Drought or Drench, We Should Conserve

While there are many ways we can improve California’s water management, one of the simplest and most rewarding is conservation. Water conservation offers many perks—perhaps most notably, tremendous climate benefits.

The UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency compiled data showing that the state’s nearly 25 percent reduction in water usage in response to the drought saved more electricity than all of the other energy efficiency practices undertaken during the same time period combined, and at less than a third of the cost of those measures! It was in the face of this impressive evidence that LA Waterkeeper was so confused and disheartened by the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision to weaken statewide emergency drought regulations.

In addition to electricity savings for California as a whole, conserving water can save you money. Not only the obvious savings on your monthly water bill, but also decreased energy costs associated with heating water. Plus, future savings are in store for all of us—conserving water now will help us avoid the need for expensive infrastructure projects to get more water to LA in the future.

Conservation can make LA more water-secure by reducing the need for imported water and expensive, environmentally harmful local water projects, like desalination. If every person in LA County reduced their average daily water usage by just 10 gallons, that would result in total water savings of 100 million gallons per day. And, while it is felt most acutely during drought, it is never safe to be largely reliant on a life-sustaining resource you don’t totally control. In Southern California, we are just one major earthquake or other disaster away from disrupting one of our imported water sources and being in a true crisis situation for our residents and businesses. Conserving water—whether during drought or not—will allow us to reduce our dependence on imported water, and increase water in our aquafers for times of emergency, so we stop this cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis.

Testing storm drain outputs along the LA River. January 28, 2017. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo, SGV Tribune/ SCNG)

And, of course, using less water—particularly on lawns and other outdoor uses—helps reduce the flow of toxic runoff that is the leading source of pollution to LA’s inland and coastal waters. Every day, rain or shine, contaminated runoff flows from our streets and lawns into our storm drains, where it is then deposited untreated in local rivers, creeks or coastal waters. This is the pollution that every Angeleno helps contribute to…and that we can all play a role in addressing through reduced water waste.

In times of rain, conservation lessens the flow of water into storm drains, helping to minimize flooding. Sadly, as the impacts of climate change intensify in the coming years, we will see more of this drought-to-drench phenomenon: frequent and longer dry periods, followed by heavier storms. Reducing water waste locally can help us mitigate these impacts of climate change.

Water conservation is not a drought issue. It’s a common sense issue.

This is all to say, despite such a wet winter, if LA doesn’t drastically restructure its water management system, it won’t matter how much precipitation we receive or if we are technically in a state of drought or not. The more important question is how we manage the water we already have. Our friends at Heal the Bay agree—check out their response to all the rain, and why they agree we need to focus on conservation as well as stormwater capture!

One of LA Waterkeeper’s great worries, with so much focus on the drought as the reason for conserving water, is that it suggests that such conservation is not needed once the drought it over. Nothing could be further from the truth—conservation and smart water planning is simply good environmental, economic and community policy…in drought or in drench!

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LA Waterkeeper
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Santa Monica, CA 90401

Phone: 310-394-6162
Fax: 310-394-6178

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