Storm Water, Long a Nuisance, May Be a Parched California’s Salvation

Feb 19, 2016

Photo credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

By Adam Nagourney

The winter rains finally arrived in Southern California, bringing drenching relief this week to a part of the nation suffering one of the worst droughts in history. But the El Niño storms brought something else as well: a reminder of lost opportunity, on display in this coastal city, as millions of gallons of storm water slipped down the usually dry Los Angeles River and out into San Pedro Bay.

After a year in which Californians cut water use by 25 percent, storm water has become the next front in what amounts to a fundamental restructuring of Southern California’s relationship with its intricate water network. More than 200 billion gallons of storm water, enough to supply 1.4 million households for a year, could be captured statewide — but instead end up spilling down sewers and drains and into the ocean, as was on display Thursday, in the hours after the rainfall ended, at the spot where the Los Angeles River ends here.

Nowhere is the disparity felt more than in parched Los Angeles, with its short winters and its overwhelming reliance on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River. For nearly a century, since deadly floods in 1938 killed 97 people, engineers have focused on ways to flush storm water safely out of Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Now, officials want to capture that water.

“Something that was once viewed as a nuisance is now seen as a necessity,” said Eric M. Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles. “We haven’t done enough.”

Mr. Garcetti invoked the legacy of William Mulholland, the city engineer who oversaw the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as he outlined policy intended to press Los Angeles to increase the amount of storm water captured, to 50 billion gallons by 2035 from 8.8 billion gallons now. “This is a Mulholland moment,” he said in an interview. “I intend to re-engineer the water system again to keep water here.”

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2 comments on “Storm Water, Long a Nuisance, May Be a Parched California’s Salvation

  • 1
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    “This is a Mulholland moment,” he said in an interview. “I intend to re-engineer the water system again to keep water here.”

    Indeed, the primary crisis is one of management and policy and a need for more engineering. California has a great water system and vast water resources, even during a drought

    But the combination of dry weather, increased population, high water usage crops, and huge environmental allocations have culminated in a combined demand whereby the patchwork regulatory system is no longer viable.

    Urban usage is only some 10%. About 90% goes to agriculture (business) and environmental use. The cities can cut by 30% but that is only 3% of the total. Getting people to pee twice per flush just is not going to solve the problems of water table drop and crop failures.

    The sky is not falling, faucets continue to flow and there is no real danger they will cease. What is needed is a reevaluation and reallocation in the whole complex system and development of sources presently simply flowing out to sea.

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  • I live in the driest state on the driest continent on earth. Same climate as California. I run 30,000 litres of rainwater tanks plumbed into my house. I get around 8 months of the year self sufficient. Is there a culture of rainwater tanks in California?

    We also practice water saving as a matter of course. Wash hands and collect water in a bucket. I use a low salt washing detergent and have plumbed my washing machine water directly out to the garden. Shower with a bucket. Men save a flush outside… Drip irrigation. Native plants that live in a dry climate. Limited lawns….

    Just curious as to the attitude of Californians to water usage.

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