Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

In 1913, Los Angeles’ legendary chief engineer William Mulholland watched water flow from the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time and proclaimed, “There it is. Take it.”

The project drew water from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, more than 200 miles away, across deserts and mountains, drying up the Owens River and the once-vast Owens Lake, and dangerously lowering eerily beautiful Mono Lake. Over time, it also made modern Los Angeles possible in all its awful glory: sprawling suburbs linked by clogged freeways underneath a blanket of smog.

Later, L.A. tore out its rail system to make room for a booming car culture. And even today, despite the dramatic natural setting—10,000-foot mountains, 30 miles of Pacific beaches and one of the nation’s largest urban parks smack-dab in its middle—many of L.A.’s 4 million residents have no easy access to nature, making the city one of our most park-poor.

And yet, last year, as the city celebrated the centennial of its original sin—that Owens Valley water grab—it also marked a turning point in its history: Under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

This coincides with a political transition. In 2013, L.A. elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, 43, who as a City Council member was a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX. That the L.A. River—a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel famous as a backdrop for murders and movie car chases—has become an official symbol of Los Angeles says a lot about the city’s transformation. The river, like its city, is slowly but surely being rehabilitated.

Los Angeles has a solid foundation for this effort. Its 329 days of sunshine a year and ocean breezes give it an advantage, making heating and cooling more energy-efficient. The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation’s densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many—88 cities in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist’s dream.

Meanwhile, California’s overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country’s most-progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River—initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams—have been embraced by the political mainstream. The city is also home to RePower L.A., a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic-justice activists that works with the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to train workers to retrofit homes at no cost to homeowners.

L.A.’s bid to become a 21st-century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began—with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here. Still, L.A. imports approximately 89 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away—the Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been forced to leave more water in the Owens Valley, raising the level of Mono Lake, returning water to the Owens River, and keeping down dust at dry Owens Lake. With other imported supplies likely to be pinched by climate change and increasing environmental demands, the municipal utility is working to capture more stormwater and store it in depleted groundwater basins; clean up contaminated groundwater; and recycle and reuse wastewater.

Woodbury University’s Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year—the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake—if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That’s already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.

Meanwhile, the utility has committed to phasing out coal-powered electricity in the next 12 years, ending long-term power purchase agreements with plants in Utah and Arizona, and inspiring the climate-advocacy group to call Los Angeles “the national leader in the fight against climate change.” L.A. already has the largest solar-rooftop incentive program in the country, and the best feed-in-tariff rules, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid. The city itself has realized an energy savings of 57 percent by installing 36,500 LED streetlights. It’s working to reduce energy consumption by at least 20 percent overall across 30 million square feet of existing buildings. The City Council recently made L.A. the first major city to require all new and remodeled homes to have “cool roofs” that reflect rather than absorb sunlight.

L.A. is also building a new rail system that is creating a different backbone for a city long defined by cars and freeways. Within a couple of years, you’ll be able to ride a train 25 miles from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for the first time in nearly a century. L.A. is also, incredibly, becoming more bike-friendly, with 350 miles of bike lanes and paths and more on the way. Major city thoroughfares are shut down several times a year for CicLAvia events that attract tens of thousands of riders. And 19 new parks have been opened in recent years as part of the city’s “50 Parks Initiative,” many in L.A.’s most park-poor neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the city has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena. That said, L.A. has a long way to go. We still have the worst air quality of any major U.S. city. Many local communities suffer from disproportionate environmental health risks because of their proximity to freeways and other polluters. And like everyone else, the city still needs a strategy for kicking its addiction to fossil fuels.

As a newcomer—I moved here a little more than a year ago from Northern California—I’ve been surprised not only by L.A.’s recent accomplishments, but also by the serious self-reflection behind them. Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges.

Last fall, the University of California at Los Angeles announced a major research initiative. “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles” aims to wean the city off imported water and make it fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving local quality of life. More than 70 campus researchers—from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning—are contributing to the plan, to be presented in 2019.

The necessary partnerships with local, state and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups are already coming together. “Let’s get it done!” Mayor Garcetti told a group of local leaders, researchers and donors, who gathered to kick off the $150 million fundraising campaign in November.

Can we get it done? With the impending impacts of a hotter climate and rising sea level, more wildfires, and reduced snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher and journalist-in-residence in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and History Department at University of California at Los Angeles. This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Published in Environment

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an unenviable job even in a wet year, but in prolonged periods of drought, the task of managing the Colorado River is even harder.

The agency is in charge of balancing the water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs: the serpentine desert lakes called Powell and Mead. Seven Western states depend on water from the Colorado for everything from showering to growing lettuce, and keeping the reservoirs at the proper level makes sure everyone gets their legal share—that is, until drought complicates things.

Fourteen years of drought exacerbated by a dry spring, and an even drier July, prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to do something it’s never done before: release less water from Lake Powell. That means water levels at Lake Mead, 250 miles downstream of Powell, will continue to drop, threatening to render one of two intake pumps inoperable, and leaving Las Vegas with only one source of water—and no backup.

Unlike many major cities in the Southwest that supplement Colorado River water with groundwater, Las Vegas depends almost entirely on the river. And according to a 2007 Colorado River water agreement, Arizona and Nevada would be the first to feel the effects of an official shortage declaration—when the Bureau of Reclamation would deliver less water to users in those states than normal—while California would not be affected. Reclamation's Lower Colorado River director, Terry Fulp, says a shortage could occur as soon as 2016.

So it’s easy to see why water managers in Southern Nevada are trying everything they can think of to get more water into Lake Mead—including going after a meager 10,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from a wildlife refuge on the Salton Sea. Just days after Reclamation announced its water cuts on the Colorado, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a letter to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge accusing its managers of illegally using Colorado River water to maintain wetlands and grow food for migrating birds.

The Salton Sea is a strange place. Created by accident in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal, the 381-square-mile lake became an important migratory stop-over and nesting site for many species of birds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. In 1930, President Hoover recognized the ecological importance of the sea by declaring portions of it a national wildlife refuge. Now, due to water efficiency measures on farms in the Imperial Valley and rural-to-urban water transfers, the sea is drying up, risking the health of both birds and people, who could choke on toxic dust from the sea bed, as happened downwind of Owens Lake in the early 20th century.

As a wildlife refuge, the folks at Sonny Bono are concerned primarily with the birds, and in order to maintain their wetland habitat, they have been buying 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for decades. “It’s not like we’re stealing water here,” says Michael Woodbridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve been doing it a long time and through the proper channels.”

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority disagrees, arguing that using Colorado River water to create habitat for birds is not technically irrigation, and therefore violates Imperial’s contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. (SNWA representatives declined to comment on the letter, citing “legal implications associated with this issue.”)

Although this water sale has been happening for years, a July court case gives SNWA a new legal leg to stand on. In Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that using water to construct waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation,” and that Nevada water law speaks of “irrigation solely in the context of agriculture and distinguish(es) such use from the application of water for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife purposes.”

Even before this new legal challenge, Patricia Mulroy, who heads up SNWA, has long held a grudge against the Salton Sea, calling it “an accident” and “agricultural runoff; that’s all it is,” in the Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy also told the newspaper that “it’s ludicrous to imagine fresh water being sent to evaporate in a lake that’s already saltier than the Pacific Ocean while Lake Mead threatens to shrink low enough to shut down Las Vegas’ water intakes and the turbines at Hoover Dam.”

Mulroy is also critical of previous efforts by the IID to replenish the sea, including a 2010 delivery of nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water that Reclamation is now forcing the district to pay back. The fact that Imperial has the right to much more Colorado River water than Nevada—3.1 million acre-feet, more than 10 times the Silver State’s annual allotment—could also have something to do with Mulroy's grudge. Still, SNWA maintains that neither drought or the recent court case influenced its decision to criticize water use at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea refuge.

For its part, IID maintains that sending irrigation water to the Salton Sea is legal. “It is folly to object to Colorado River water being used for environmental purposes at the Salton Sea. It is misguided. It is wrong as a matter of environmental policy, and it is wrong as a matter of law,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told the Imperial Valley Press.

So what could SNWA’s accusation mean for the Salton Sea? If the refuge can no longer buy water from IID, it could accelerate the exposure of the sea bed and potentially hasten the creation of toxic dust clouds. More certain is that without Colorado River water, tens of thousands of migrating birds won’t have rye grass to eat in the winter, which could force them to chomp crops on neighboring fields, angering farmers.

As Woodbridge says, “You can’t manage for wildlife in a place like the Salton Sea without water.”

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Local Issues

On April 14, a Sunday, the Colorado ski resort Vail Mountain celebrated closing day in the invariable way: Skiers and boarders sported neon onesies and mullet wigs. The less modest squeezed into denim short shorts to flaunt calves and quads sculpted over a winter on the slopes. Alcohol was over-consumed and confiscated in lift lines. But even without it, the mood was buoyant: It was, unusually, a 13-inch powder day. By Wednesday, 24 more inches had fallen.

Skier spirits were still soaring the following Sunday, when Vail hosted Closing Day: The Sequel. Pleading for a third closing day via Facebook, one powder hound goaded: “I dare you to close more times than Brett Favre has retired.”

Colorado snowpacks—which supply the Colorado River, a crucial water source for millions of Westerners, including those of us here in the Coachella Valley—began April at 72 percent of their average heft. Thanks to storms and frigid temperatures, instead of starting to melt as they typically do, north and central Colorado snowpacks ballooned last month. In late April, Old Man Winter was forcing Major League Baseball cancellations in relatively temperate Denver. Boulder set a record with more than 4 feet of snow that month. By May 1, the statewide snowpack weighed in at 83 percent of average.

In the end, though, the spring storms were momentary distractions from the Southwest’s real weather story: The region’s major river basins, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, are still mired in a decade-plus-long drought. It’s often said that persistent drought is the “new normal” here thanks to global warming, but that’s something of a misnomer. Using tree rings, scientists have found that the region has experienced droughts lasting decades, and even centuries, long before humans began meddling with the climate. The aridity we’ve experienced of late isn’t any more extreme than it was then. But the heat is—and it bears a human fingerprint. The combination leads scientists to call it a “global-change-type drought,” meaning more of the same can be expected in the Southwest as extreme heat exacerbates the region’s characteristic dry spells.

Precipitation in the Rio Grande Basin is expected to decline by more than 2 percent at midcentury. It’s highly uncertain how climate change will impact the moisture that falls on the upper Colorado, if much at all. But dust-on-snow events have already caused snowmelt to happen earlier in the year, a trend that reduces overall runoff by about 5 percent, as more water is evaporated into the atmosphere from plants and soils. That’s a significant amount for overstretched water supplies, and warmer temperatures are likely to intensify the effect.

Troublingly, at the same time, water demand is on an upward trajectory.

This spring, the effects of hot, dry year upon hot, dry year are already beginning to make themselves painfully plain. That’s especially true in New Mexico. Seventy-seven percent of the state is suffering “extreme” drought, which is only a little better than “exceptional” drought—as bad as it gets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year ago, most of the state was in drought of the “moderate” variety. Even so, more than 30 miles of the Pecos River, in southeastern New Mexico, went dry last summer. This year, Carlsbad farmers are pressing the state to shut off Roswell farmers’ groundwater wells, which they say are illegally draining the Pecos of water that belongs to them.

Drought has a way of bringing simmering conflict to full boil, and it did so concurrently on the lower Rio Grande. “The river here looks a lot like the Sahara Desert,” says Phil King, water engineer for south-central New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which wets the chile and onion fields and pecan orchards around Las Cruces. Though Rio Grande Basin snowpacks were 67 percent of average in early April, runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir through July was conservatively forecast at a pitiful 5 percent of normal, and after a decade of drought, the reservoir sits 90 percent empty. The “river” below it is a sand channel and will remain that way until June 1, when releases begin, and will dry up again in early July when they end. Farmers are surviving on groundwater, but it’s a safety net of diminishing returns. Wells are beginning to go dry or produce brackish water, and irrigators downstream in Texas have asked the Supreme Court to shut them off for the same reason Carlsbad wants Roswell’s pumps idled. The system is dangerously near a breaking point.

“It’s the most critically short year we’ve ever had in the history of the Rio Grande Project,” a series of dams and reservoirs in New Mexico and Texas, King laments. “Each successive year of short water gets worse and worse.”

That principle holds true on the Colorado River, though things aren’t nearly so dire. Since 2000, demand for water has outpaced supply. Reservoir storage has made up the difference, ensuring the states below Lake Mead—Arizona, Nevada and here in California—get their full annual supplies. (Ironically, upstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell—where most of the water supply originates, but storage is less formidable—water-users have experienced shortages.) But the cushion the wet ’80s and ’90s provided is thinning. Lake Powell, the basin’s second largest reservoir, was 85 percent full in 2000. Today, it’s about 45 percent full. And this year, runoff in most of the Upper Basin is forecast lower than you might expect given the late boost to snowpacks, because after a dry year—in 2012, Upper Colorado snowpacks topped out below 70 percent of normal—the landscape has cottonmouth: Parched soils take a cut of the snowmelt that would otherwise fill rivers. After snowmelt, the water line of Lake Powell will likely sit below even last year’s modest peak.

“The more severe the drying with climate change, the more likely we will see shortages and perhaps empty reservoirs despite our best efforts,” said Ken Nowak in 2009, upon the release of a study he co-authored on whether smart management could mitigate the risk of water shortages on the Colorado River. It found that the risk of the Colorado’s big reservoirs emptying in the next 15 years or so was slight. Still, Nowak’s cautionary note remains as true today as it was then: “The important thing is not to get lulled into a sense of security with the near-term resiliency of the Colorado River Basin water supply. If we do, we’re in for a rude awakening.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

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