For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has seen a dramatic increase in population since the 1970’s, but water use has actually declined, with the largest drops in use during periods of drought and recession. Efforts are now focused on decreasing demand for imported water by increasing local supplies. A few weeks ago, we wrote about ways each of us as individuals can conserve water in our landscapes by copying nature and making choices appropriate to our local micro-climates and water availability. In addition to the smaller-scale decisions we make in our own landscapes, progressive state and local policies are helping California to better conserve its limited water resources.
Here are a few across the state:
Water Conservation in Landscaping Act of 2006 (AB 1881)
This Assembly Bill spurred the creation of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which established maximum allowed landscape water budgets and mandated low water-use plants and efficient irrigation strategies. AB 1881 encourages us to capture and retain on site stormwater and use recycled water. The ordinance also requires soil assessments, soil management plans, and landscape maintenance plans to accompany landscape plans submitted through municipal permit processes.
Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (AB 551, in progress)
If passed, Assembly Bill 551 will incentivize the use of currently-vacant private land for urban agriculture. Private landowners could have their property assessed at a lower property tax rate — based on agricultural use rather than its market value — in exchange for ensuring its use for urban agriculture for 10 years. Increasing local agricultural production where recycled water is readily available can reduce water and energy use in food production and increase our cities’ self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of potential natural disasters.
In Southern California:
The Los Angeles County Bureau of Sanitation and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began recycling water in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, for groundwater recharge and non-potable uses — or uses other than for drinking, such as irrigation or industry. In 2008, the OCWD district began recharging its groundwater supplies with water treated to levels above drinking water standards for reuse as potable water. A big push to educate the public about the process and its benefits smoothed the transition. The district is now expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, or enough to supply nearly one-third of Orange County’s 3.1 million people. Los Angeles, which delayed their water recycling efforts for drinking water after negative PR alarmed the public, is now planning to expand their recycled water program, including groundwater recharge, by 2035.
In Los Angeles:
Proposition O (2004)
Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Prop O to use $500 million to fund projects to:
• Protect rivers, lakes, beaches, and the ocean;
• Conserve and protect drinking water and other water sources;
• Reduce flooding and use neighborhood parks to decrease polluted runoff;
• Capture, clean up, and reuse stormwater.
Low Impact Development Ordinance (2012)
Los Angeles’ LID Ordinance ensures that new and redevelopment projects recharge groundwater aquifers to increase future water supply; protect water quality downstream; reduce flood risk by keeping rainwater on site; remove nutrients, bacteria, and metals from stormwater runoff; and reduce and slow water that runs off of properties during storms.
But there is still much more we can do. Caroline Mini, who wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of California last year, shows how urban residential water use in Los Angeles is largely determined by income. Wealthier neighborhoods on average use three times more water than poorer neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that most wealthier neighborhoods inhabit tree-covered hillsides with ample available soil moisture, while less fortunate residents occupy dryer, flatter, and less shaded areas. Better-off communities have the opportunity to use their wealth to establish well-designed, resource-efficient, and beautiful landscapes that will become models in water conservation. And cities and counties have the opportunity to create green infrastructure projects that add tree canopy and increase permeability to regain the sponge quality of soil in those low-land neighborhoods that will benefit most.
Agriculture accounts for 80 percent water of the used by people in our state. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Institute published an issue brief last year illustrating the massive water conservation potential that could come from more efficient agricultural practices. Just using the most up-to-date irrigation technologies and applying only the amount of water crops need could reduce agricultural water use by 17-22 percent. In 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, describing dry rice farming techniques that matched or out-produced his most productive neighbors. This poetic story about working with nature instead of against it to grow successive crops with little effort is more relevant than ever today.
More thoughtful planning for both rural agricultural and urban water use is needed. We can determine which crops and farming methods best serve our regional and exported food needs while further conserving water. We can advance urban water efficiency plans, which could generate savings that can negate the current deficit, while creating greener, more resilient and self-reliant cities.
This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.