How Dry I Am
By David DeVoss
After four years of drought it has come to this: California’s politicians are trying to convince Los Angeles residents to drink treated sewage. Toilet to Tap is no joke. The idea was floated 20 years ago during the last serious drought, but foundered on the fact that recycled water would mostly go to working class homes. That it again is being considered is symptomatic of the doomsday frenzy now gripping the state.
The panic began in April when Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the slope of a mountain bereft of snow and ordered a 25% reduction in urban water use. “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day – that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Brown said with imperious sanctimony. He reinforced his determination by threatening water wasters with fines up to $10,000 a day.
Los Angeles, of course, is a desert. But thanks to civil engineer William Mulholland the city has had plenty of water since 1913 when Mulholland completed his 223-mile aqueduct from the Eastern Sierra and remarked, as water began cascading into the San Fernando Valley, “There it is. Take it.” Today, the spillway is bone dry, not because there’s no water, but because 90% of what little water there is being used to grow food or protect the environment.
Nobody really seems upset that California farmers use 41% of the state’s water yet face few restrictions. Twelve gallons of water to produce a head of lettuce doesn’t seem so bad when it comes in the form of a Cobb Salad at the Polo Lounge. At the In-N-Out Burger chain the Double Double still rules, despite it taking 450 gallons to produce a single beef patty.
More problematic is the 46% of California’s water that goes to keeping fish happy. In 2007, a federal court limited the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to protect a two-inch fish called the Delta Smelt. Liberal environmentalists in San Francisco applauded that ruling since the water otherwise would have gone to Southern California. They also support a recent State Water Resources Control Board decision to release water from Sierra reservoirs so that steelhead trout and salmon in mountain streams can reach the Delta more easily.
“The policy is breathtakingly stupid at both the state and federal levels and is being administered by ideological zealots who can’t be reasoned with,” says Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, who represents the Western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
McClintock warned of a looming crisis a year ago, but environmentalists refused to listen. Their attitude changed two months ago, however, when another group of conservationists asked a federal court to dismantle a Yosemite dam that provides water to 2.6 million Bay Area residents. The lawsuit alleges that the dam and canals that send water and power to San Francisco deny the rest of the state with the recreational and aesthetic enjoyment that only a wild and scenic river can provide.
Ironically, California has an exceptional record when it comes to water conservation. LA’s water usage hasn’t increased in over 30 years despite adding more than 1,000,000 people. More than 1.3 million inefficient toilets have been replaced thanks to a rebate program sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The program was so successful that the city continues to save more than 14 billion gallons of water each year – enough to fill the Rose Bowl about 56 times.
After years of assiduous water conservation, saving an additional 25% is literally impossible. But that hasn’t stopped citizens from submitting thousands of ideas. One person suggested the state invest in biodegradable towels that don’t require washing in water. Another proposed covering reservoirs to prevent evaporation. My favorite: placing laudatory bumper stickers on unwashed cars that proclaim the motorist a drought-busting hero.
Hundreds of people suggested building desalination plants along the coast. But that idea was quashed by environmentalists who warned that salt removed from the water would harm marine life when put back into the ocean.
One project still going ahead is a $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad, which by 2020 should produce 7% of the water used by San Diego County’s three million residents. The Boston company building the facility hopes to inoculate itself against future criticism by having an Israeli company manage it and hiring former Marines as employees.
Californians start dreaming about pipelines whenever there’s a drought. Twenty-five years ago a Los Angeles County Supervisor proposed building an aqueduct that would bring water from the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Oregon rejected the proposal, but Alaska governor Walter Hickel said his state might be interested. Hickel even flew to Los Angeles in 1991 to discuss hydrology. “Hickel believes the pipeline could be built on the back of a large barge and lowered to the sea floor like a big garden hose as the barge moves south,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “And because it would be under the sea the pipeline could be built of reinforced plastic instead of the concrete and steel that would be needed to withstand the rigors of a land route.”
The current drought does not evoke much humor. During past water shortages California’s flower children were advised to “Save water; shower with a friend.” Today we are told to bathe with a bucket if we want water for our flowers. Recently, actor William Shatner offered to help raise $30 billion for a pipeline that would bring water down from Seattle. “That place has too much water,” Shatner told Yahoo’s David Pogue. “How bad would it be to get a large 4-ft. pipeline, keep it above ground – because even if it leaks you’re irrigating.”
In May, LA’s DWP sent out 7,300 warning letters to households using more water than their neighbors. Last week, a metropolitan water district in the western part of the county hired uniformed security guards to conduct around the clock searches for people watering lawns more than twice a week. And the governor has banned water use on traffic medians and told cemeteries and golf courses to cut water use by 25% or, better still, take out grass and alternate native plants with rockscapes. Regulators hint their next target will be residential backyard swimming pools.
Twice weekly watering of residential lawns still is allowed at night, but woe to the person who accidentally sprinkles some concrete. Self-appointed “water crusaders” start patrolling the streets at dawn looking for damp sidewalks. Many carry smart phones with apps like H2O Tracker and DroughtShame that allow them to take and immediately post geotagged photos of suspect water hogs.
Tweets hash tagged #droughtshaming recently prompted a snarky New York Post story on LA celebrities with green lawns that took on a new life of its own when reposted in a local real estate blog called Curbed LA. “The (Kanye and Kim) Kardashian flowers and hedges are right in our face,” one irate neighbor complained. “It’s disgusting. You walk by and you can smell the freshness.”
Many of the celebrities being shamed live in the west San Fernando Valley where manicured estates often have rose gardens, plunge pools and bridal paths. Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson and Khloe Kardashian, who purchased her estate last year from Justin Bieber, are dissed anonymously for failing to let their lawns die.
Los Angeles would be a very different city without shade trees, gardens and lawns. But getting rid of grass has become one of the city’s top priorities. Los Angeles offers a $3.75 rebate on every square foot of grass replaced with drought tolerant plants. Turf Terminators, a local startup that has grown from three to 500 employees in just 10 months will remove your lawn and provide new landscaping in return for your rebate check.
Nobody knows how long water restrictions will last. The El Nino condition in the Pacific that is bringing rain to Texas eventually may drop some moisture on California. But until that happens we will continue living by the mantra, “If it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down.”
David DeVoss lives in Los Angeles surrounded by dying grass and an empty swimming pool.
Tags: Alaska, aqueduct, California, Los Angeles, Jerry Brown, desalination, drought, droughtshaming, Oregon, San Fernando Valley