Why LA's local water strategy is like 'Superman 3': With Delta water uncertain, LA looks to expand local supplies

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Friday is the first day for Californians to weigh in on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a $25 billion blueprint to shore up the state’s increasingly compromised network of channels and aqueducts that delivers a third of Southern California’s water.

A key part of the plan is new tunnels to keep carrying water to the thirsty south. But exactly how much a new and improved State Water Project would deliver to Southern California is unclear.

So Jerry Meral, the deputy director for the Department of Water Resources, says Southern California has work to do. “It’s gradually going to become more and more necessary to conserve like crazy, and recycle. It isn’t either or, it’s both.”

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Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Director of Water Operations Marty Adams agrees with that. He’s working to increase L.A.’s reliance on local water sources. Right now, he says, Southern California is largely at war with its local water. The concrete and asphalt of the urban landscape speeds stormwater into drains; then it’s lost to the ocean.

Adams says it’s time to call a truce. “Well, now, we’re looking at how do we tilt society backwards? How do you hold water in people’s yards?” he says. “It’s rain barrels. It’s changes in drainage, to put that water back in the ground.”

As an example of what he’s talking about, Adams invited me to what’s known as the Tujunga Spreading Grounds. It’s a 150-acre swath of land in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and it’s got some shallow dirt depressions the size of soccer fields. They catch stormwater from nearby mountains.

“We basically fill these basins full of water, and then that water percolates. Almost like a drip coffee maker,” Adams says. “Any contaminants that you’d see in off the street, if it’s bacteria, anything like that, all gets captured in the first few feet of soil. And so the water’s very clean as it travels, like a natural filter."

Right now, groundwater makes up around 11 percent of the city’s supplies. Adams says the plan is to get local water up to 43 percent in about 20 years by doubling stormwater capture spreading grounds, swales and other sites scattered over the LA basin.

“I liken it to the Superman movie where Richard Pryor takes a nickel off of everyone’s paycheck, and then he almost has a heart attack and shows up the next day in a Ferrari,” Adams says.

That’s "Superman III," actually: The one where Richard Pryor plays a computer genius named Gus, who steals $85,000 overnight and buys a Ferrari.

Marty Adams says picture that Ferrari as LA’s future local water supply. “These things add up,” he says. “Instead of death by a thousand cuts, it will be life by a thousand projects.”

But that Ferrari is at risk of rusting out, he says, if we don’t do something to clean up contamination like toxic chemicals from World War II-era rocket factories that have seeped into the ground.

“We’ve lost half of our groundwater wells, our production wells, due to contamination,” Adams says. “And so we need to be able to recover that source.”
 
Federal regulators have recovered little money from now-defunct companies that should be on the hook for polluting groundwater. To clean up local groundwater storage, L.A. will need to spend its own money.

Adams says that looks like a better deal than it used to.

“You know, you asked me 15 years ago, are these projects viable, I’d say, well we have other sources available,” he says. “Well that picture’s totally changed.”

Changed, in the sense that even with those twin water tunnels envisioned by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, competing environmental considerations and predictions of prolonged drought are likely to crimp the imported water supply for Southern California's ever-growing population.

Local water expert Mark Gold at UCLA’s Institute of Sustainability and the Environment says a constellation of spreading grounds is a great idea, but L.A. needs to go further. UCLA has thrown out a grand challenge: How to make L.A. 100 percent water independent. He questions Southern California’s reliance on water several hundreds of miles away. (More on that here.)

“I think everybody’s looking at the Bay Delta and has for many, many years as the water system for the state rather than what do we need to do overall.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, out for public comment now, would cost ratepayers at least 5 bucks more a month for the foreseeable future, according to estimates provided by the Metropolitan Water District. Gold and other environmentalists wonder whether that money would be better spent shoring up local water supplies. 

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