Water Security is National Security

Water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of society and the economy, in particular health, food production and security, domestic water supply and sanitation, energy, industry, and the functioning of ecosystems. Under present climate variability, water stress is already high, particularly in many developing countries, and climate change adds even more urgency for action. Without improved water resources management, the progress towards poverty reduction targets, the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development in all its economic, social and environ- mental dimensions, will be jeopardized. UN Water.Org

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Thirsty, Violent World

They say you learn something new everyday. For me, this day qualifies. Michael Specter writes at the New Yorker on the increasingly dire prospects for water -- of the clean, unpolluted kind -- for a clamoring humankind and of the water wars that are surely on the horizon.

And he has this, on the origins of the word "rivals": "After all, the word 'rivals' has its roots in battles over water—coming from the Latin, rivalis, for 'one taking from the same stream as another.'” Who knew? Not me. Specter's prognostication on our looming water disasters is a grim but important read and not just for Pakistanis or Nigerians, but for us in a country in which California is parched for water in a prolonged drought and researchers are predicting humongous droughts coming later in the century for our breadbasket, the Midwest! TomDispatch



A Thirsty, Violent World

Angry protesters filled the streets of Karachi last week, clogging traffic lanes and public squares until police and paratroopers were forced to intervene. That’s not rare in Pakistan, which is often a site of political and religious violence.

But last week’s protests had nothing to do with freedom of expression, drone wars, or Americans. They were about access to water. When Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Minister of Defense, Power, and Water (yes, that is one ministry), warned that the country’s chronic water shortages could soon become uncontrollable, he was looking on the bright side. The meagre allotment of water available to each Pakistani is a third of what it was in 1950. As the country’s population rises, that amount is falling fast.

Dozens of other countries face similar situations—not someday, or soon, but now. Rapid climate change, population growth, and a growing demand for meat (and, thus, for the water required to grow feed for livestock) have propelled them into a state of emergency. Millions of words have been written, and scores of urgent meetings have been held, since I last wrote about this issue for the magazine, nearly a decade ago; in that time, things have only grown worse.

The various physical calamities that confront the world are hard to separate, but growing hunger and the struggle to find clean water for billions of people are clearly connected. Each problem fuels others, particularly in the developing world—where the harshest impact of natural catastrophes has always been felt. Yet the water crisis challenges even the richest among us.

California is now in its fourth year of drought, staggering through its worst dry spell in twelve hundred years; farmers have sold their herds, and some have abandoned crops. Cities have begun rationing water. According to the London-based organization Wateraid, water shortages are responsible for more deaths in Nigeria than Boko Haram; there are places in India where hospitals have trouble finding the water required to sterilize surgical tools.

Nowhere, however, is the situation more acute than in Brazil, particularly for the twenty million residents of São Paulo. “You have all the elements for a perfect storm, except that we don’t have water,” a former environmental minister told Lizzie O’Leary, in a recent interview for the syndicated radio show “Marketplace.” The country is bracing for riots. “There is a real risk of social convulsion,” José Galizia Tundisi, a hydrologist with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, warned in a press conference last week. He said that officials have failed to act with appropriate urgency. “Authorities need to act immediately to avoid the worst.” But people rarely act until the crisis is directly affecting them, and at that point it will be too late.

It is not that we are actually running out of water, because water never technically disappears. When it leaves one place, it goes somewhere else, and the amount of freshwater on earth has not changed significantly for millions of years. But the number of people on the planet has grown exponentially; in just the past century, the population has tripled, and water use has grown sixfold. More than that, we have polluted much of what remains readily available—and climate change has made it significantly more difficult to plan for floods and droughts.

Success is part of the problem, just as it is with the pollution caused by our industrial growth. The standard of living has improved for hundreds of millions of people, and the pace of improvement will quicken. As populations grow more prosperous, vegetarian life styles often yield to a Western diet, with all the disasters that implies. The new middle classes, particularly in India and China, eat more protein than they once did, and that, again, requires more water use. (On average, hundreds of gallons of water are required to produce a single hamburger.)

Feeding a planet with nine billion residents will require at least fifty per cent more water in 2050 than we use today. It is hard to see where that water will come from. Half of the planet already lives in urban areas, and that number will increase along with the pressure to supply clean water.

“Unfortunately, the world has not really woken up to the reality of what we are going to face, in terms of the crises, as far as water is concerned,” Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change, said at a conference on water security earlier this month. “If you look at agricultural products, if you look at animal protein, the demand for which is growing—that’s highly water intensive. At the same time, on the supply side, there are going to be several constraints. Firstly because there are going to be profound changes in the water cycle due to climate change.”

Floods will become more common, and so will droughts, according to most assessments of the warming earth. “The twenty-first-century projections make the [previous] mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said recently. At the same time, demands for economic growth in India and other developing nations will necessarily increase pollution of rivers and lakes. That will force people to dig deeper than ever before into the earth for water.

There are ways to replace oil, gas, and coal, though we won’t do that unless economic necessity demands it. But there isn’t a tidy and synthetic invention to replace water. Conservation would help immensely, as would a more rational use of agricultural land—irrigation today consumes seventy per cent of all freshwater.

The result of continued inaction is clear. Development experts, who rarely agree on much, all agree that water wars are on the horizon. That would be nothing new for humanity. After all, the word “rivals” has its roots in battles over water—coming from the Latin, rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another.” It would be nice to think that, with our complete knowledge of the physical world, we have moved beyond the limitations our ancestors faced two thousand years ago. But the truth is otherwise; rivals we remain, and the evidence suggests that, until we start dying of thirst, we will stay that way. More

 

Friday, February 13, 2015

The US is heading for a 'megadrought' if climate change continues at this pace

The long and severe drought in the US southwest pales in comparison with what’s coming: a “megadrought” that will grip that region and the central plains later this century and probably stay there for decades, a new study says.

Thirty-five years from now, if the current pace of climate change continues unabated, those areas of the country will experience a weather shift that will linger for as long as three decades, according to the study, released Thursday.

Researchers from Nasa and Cornell and Columbia universities warned of major water shortages and conditions that dry out vegetation, which can lead to monster wildfires in southern Arizona and parts of California.

“We really need to start thinking in longer-term horizons about how we’re going to manage it,” said Toby R Ault, an assistant professor in the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, one of the co-authors. “This is a slow-moving natural hazard that humans are used to dealing with and used to managing.”

Megadroughts are sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought.

Tucson had less than 80 percent of its normal rainfall for long stretches in the 1990s. If that were to last for two decades, “that’s a megadrought,” Ault said.

Based on climate models the researchers used for the study, there is an 80 percent chance that such an extended drought will strike between 2050 and 2099, unless world governments act aggressively to mitigate impacts from climate change, the researchers said.

North America’s last megadroughts happened in medieval times, during the 12th and 13th centuries. They were caused by natural changes in weather that give megadroughts a 10 percent chance of forming at any time.

But climate change driven by human activity dramatically increases those chances. “With climate change, the likelihood of a megadrought goes up considerably,” Ault said.

The other writers for the study were its lead author, Benjamin I Cook, a research scientist for NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and co-author Jason E Smerdon, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The report was published Thursday in the journal Science Advances.

“We got some exciting, thrilling and important research,” said Marcia Kemper McNutt, a geophysicist and editor in chief of the journal Science. “We are facing a water situation that hasn’t been seen in California for 1,200 years.”

At the study’s presentation, Ault had a word of caution. Weather conditions can vary, climate impacts can be mitigated, and the warnings of the study might not come to pass. A single El Niño weather pattern in the West could interrupt periods of prolonged drought.

Smerdon said the researchers went back over a thousand years’ worth of data to look at conditions that caused drought in North America and observing patterns in tree rings to determine wet and dry periods.

After 2050, there is “overwhelming evidence of a dry shift,” he said, “way drier than the megadroughts of the 1100s and 1200s.” The cause, Smerdon continued, “is twofold, reductions in rainfall and snowfall. Not just rainfall but soil moisture and changes in evaporation that dry out the soil much more than normal.”

The research is newly published, but its findings are not dramatically different from similar studies in the past. Beverly Law, a specialist in global change biology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, co-authored a study of megadroughts three years ago.

It showed that a drought that affected the American West from 2000 to 2004 compared to conditions seen during the medieval megadroughts. But the predicted megadrought this century would be far worse. Law said Thursday’s study confirmed her previous findings.

“We took the climate model and compared” two periods, 2050 to 2099 and 1950 to 1999, she said. “What it showed is this big, red blotch over Southern California. It will really impact megacities, populations and water availability.”

Law is also co-author of an upcoming study commissioned by the U.S. Geological Survey about forest mortality later this century, and the preliminary findings are disturbing, she said.

According to predictions, the amount of precipitation in Arizona will be half of what it was between 1950 and 1999.

“We have drinking water to be concerned about,” she said. “That area’s really vulnerable.” More

 

Starved for Energy, Pakistan Braces for a Water Crisis

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Energy-starved Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new resource crisis: major water shortages, the Pakistani government warned this week.

A combination of global climate change and local waste and mismanagement have led to an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply, said the minister for water and energy, Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

“Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” Mr. Asif said in an interview, echoing a warning that he first issued at a news conference in Lahore this week.

The prospect of a major water crisis in Pakistan, even if several years distant, offers a stark reminder of a growing challenge in other poor and densely populated countries that are vulnerable to global climate change.

In Pakistan, it poses a further challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has come under sharp criticism for failing to end the country’s electricity crisis. In some rural areas, heavy rationing has meant that as little as four hours of electricity a day is available.

In the interview, Mr. Asif said the government had started to bring the electricity crisis under control, and predicted a return to a normal supply by 2017. But energy experts are less confident that such a turnaround is possible, given how long and complex the problem has proved to be.

Now the country’s water supply looms as a resource challenge, intensified by Pakistan’s enduring infrastructure and management problems.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Pakistani economy. The 2,000-mile-long Indus River, which rises in the Himalayas and spans the country, feeds a vast network of irrigation canals that line fields producing wheat, vegetables and cotton, all major sources of foreign currency. In the north, hydroelectric power stations are a cornerstone of the creaking power system.

A combination of melting glaciers, decreasing rainfall and chronic mismanagement by successive governments has put that water supply in danger, experts say.

In a report published in 2013, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, with a water availability of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year — a fivefold drop since independence in 1947, and about the same level as drought-stricken Ethiopia.

“It is a very serious situation,” said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership. “I feel it is going to be more serious than the recent oil shortages.”

Shortages of resources have climbed to the top of the political agenda in recent years. Fuel shortages last month, for which government officials blamed mismanagement by the national oil company, caused lengthy lines outside fuel stations that embarrassed the government at a time of low global oil prices.

Mr. Sharif’s government was already grappling with the seemingly intractable electricity crisis, which regularly causes blackouts of 10 hours a day even in major cities. And Mr. Sharif has been visibly distracted by grueling political duels, with the opposition politician Imran Khan, who accuses him of stealing the 2013 election, and with powerful military leaders who have undermined his authority in key areas.

Mr. Asif, the water and energy minister, said the government had started to turn the corner. But he acknowledged that the country’s resource problems were, to a large degree, endemic. “There is a national habit of extravagance,” he said, noting that it extended across resource areas, whether gas, electricity or water.

“I will be very careful not to use the word ‘drought,’ but we are water stressed right now, and slowly, we are moving to be a water-starved country,” he said.

Evidence of chronic water shortages have been painfully evident in some parts of Pakistan in recent years. A drought caused by erratic rainfall in Tharparkar, a desert area in southern Sindh Province, caused a humanitarian emergency in the region last year.

“The frequency of monsoon rains has decreased but their intensity has increased,” said Mr. Amir of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “That means more water stress, particularly in winters.”

Water is also tied to nationalist, even jihadist, politics in Pakistan. For years, religious conservatives and Islamist militants have accused rival India, where the Indus River system rises, of constricting Pakistan’s water supply.

Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, regularly rails against Indian “water terrorism” during public rallies.

Mr. Asif said that contrary to such claims, India was not building reservoirs on rivers that flow into Pakistan. “We will never let it happen,” he said, citing the Indus Water Treaty, an agreement between the two countries that was brokered by the World Bank and signed in the 1960s.

One major culprit in Pakistan’s looming water crisis, experts say, is the country’s inadequate water storage facilities. In India, about one-third of the water supply is stored in reservoirs, compared with just 9 percent in Pakistan, Mr. Amir said.

“We built our last dam 46 years ago,” he said. “India has built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline.”

Experts say the country’s chaotic policies are hurting its image in the eyes of Western donors who could help alleviate the mounting resource crises.

“The biggest looming crisis is of governance, not water — which could make this country unlivable in the next few years,” said Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert with the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute, a research group based in Islamabad. More

 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

As California Water Resources Dwindle, New Fears Over Drilling Waste Contamination

Situation described as 'unfolding catastrophe' as investigation finds oil drilling companies injected untold amounts of waste into protected groundwater reserves

With the blessing of California state regulators, drilling companies have injected an untold amount of toxic wastewater left over from fracking and other drilling operations into aquifers, according to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle published on Sunday.

In October, it was confirmed that nearly 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater had been illegally dumped in aquifers through at least nine disposal wells. According to data reviewed by The Chronicle, it is now evident that more than 170 such wells injected a mix of "briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals," including acid, into aquifers suitable for drinking and irrigation.

This information about the extent of the aquifer contamination comes as the state's historic drought continues to push many desperate municipalities to tap groundwater reserves for drinking water and agricultural irrigation.

"It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately," Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Chronicle.

The practice first came to light in July 2014 when state regulators shut down 11 waste disposal wells in Kern County over fears of possible groundwater contamination.

The Chronicle reports on the source of the wastewater injection problem, which they say dates back to 1983 when EPA officials agreed to allow the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources responsibility for enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act:

The agreement listed, by name, aquifers considered exempt, where oil companies could legally inject leftover water with a simple permit from the division. If state regulators wanted to add any aquifers to the list, they would need EPA’s approval.

But there were two signed copies of the agreement, said Steven Bohlen, the division’s new supervisor. Eleven aquifers listed as exempt on one copy weren’t included on the other. The state and the oil companies considered those aquifers exempt — perfectly suitable places to dispose of wastewater. The EPA didn’t.

"We cannot tell, nor can the EPA, which version is correct," said Bohlen, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

The bureaucratic confusion didn’t stop there. In some cases, the state treated entire aquifers as exempt when, in fact, only specific portions of them had been approved for oil industry use. In other instances, the state issued injection permits for aquifers that the EPA had never declared exempt, Blumenfeld said.

Water classified as containing 500 parts per million or less of dissolved salts and other materials is considered high quality and safe to drink. The state aims to protect all water that registers below 3,000 ppm.

According to The Chronicle's analysis of state data, drilling companies bore 171 injection wells into aquifers with counts of 3,000 ppm or less and an additional 253 wells into potentially usable aquifers that the EPA considers protected. Further, an additional 40 injection wells were drilled into aquifers for which no water-quality data was available.

According to state officials, tests of nearby drinking-water wells show no contamination thus far.

However, the federal EPA has threatened to seize control of regulating the waste-injection wells, and the state has a February 6 deadline to present a comprehensive plan to fix the problem and prevent future contamination of supposedly off-limits drinking water wells. More

 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Drought sees Rio's main hydro plant turned off

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - A major Rio hydroelectric power plant was switched off after water levels slipped below an operational minimum following severe drought, Brazil's national grid told AFP on Thursday.

Water levels are also dwindling at three other plants that serve a region home to 16 million people, but an ONS spokesman denied there was any immediate threat to energy supplies.

"The hydroelectric plant was switched off Wednesday as there was no longer enough water to keep its turbines turning," the spokesman said of the shutdown at the largest of the four sites.

Rio is laboring under weeks of scant rainfall as stifling temperatures approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

The plants receive their water from the Paraiba do Sul river, which flows through the states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, as well as Rio.

Last month, the states' governors agreed to begin work on improving the infrastructure of the sites as the drought shows little sign of abating.

Last year, Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous state, suffered its worst drought in 80 years. More

 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Egypt refuses Renaissance Dam storage capacity

Egypt rejected the current the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) high storage capacity, as studies showed it will affect its national water security

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’

Egypt rejected the current the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) high storage capacity, as studies showed it will affect its national water security, reported state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) Sunday.

The dam’s storage capacity reaches 74bn cubic meters. Calling such capacity “unjustified and technically unacceptable”, Egypt asked Ethiopia to reduce it to what was agreed before the start of negotiations over the years-of-filling and operation of the dam.

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, the three countries involved, are facing difficulties in technical negotiations, said Alaa Yassin, Advisor to the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation and spokesman for the GERD file, according to state news agency MENA.

Yassin hopes that all parties adhere to the August agreements that took place in Sudan“without procrastination and time-wasting”, while the three countries are trying to overcome these difficulties.

“Egypt’s share in the historic Nile River water red line cannot be crossed,” Yassin told MENA.

Ethiopia began constructing the dam in 2011, and since then Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked in a diplomatic dispute, which reached a peak in 2013. Egypt, which utilises more Nile water than any other country, fears the dispute will have a detrimental effect on its share of Nile water.

As per agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, Egypt annually receives 55.5bn cubic metres of the estimated total 84bn cubic metres of Nile water produced each year, with Sudan receiving 18.5bn cubic metres. More

 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?

The urban drainage-ways of Los Angeles can never quite look like wild creeks, but restoring some of their capacity to store, slow, and filter water fixes many problems at once.

Walk the glaring streets of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley on a sun-soaked afternoon in a drought year, the dry, brush-covered mountains rising behind you, and it can be easy to feel that you’re in arid country. “Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert,” said the fictional mayor in the Oscar-winning 1974 movie Chinatown. “Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed!”

It’s an apocryphal idea. L.A. is not the Mojave but, climatically, more like Athens. Artesian springs, fed by rain in the mountains and hills, used to bubble up around Los Angeles, and farmers and Spanish missionaries grew fruit and olives in the Valley starting in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the city has a history of treating its own raindrops and rivers as if they were more problematic than valuable. The L.A. River was prone to catastrophic floods in heavy rains, and, in the 20th century, engineers buried, straightened, and paved sections of the riverbed, flushing the water through concrete drainage channels to the Pacific Ocean. Then, to quench the thirst of its growing population, Los Angeles undertook a series of engineering feats that pumped water from the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, Northern California, and the Colorado River via hundreds of miles of pipes and reservoirs. Now the city typically imports more than 85 percent of its water from afar. And it’s as if the waters of Los Angeles disappeared from the consciousness of locals: Many Angelenos will tell you, mistakenly, that they live in a desert.

Now that story is changing again.

In the past decade and a half, a few local environmentalists have been collaborating with city and county officials to rewrite the plan for water here, driven by more and more urgent necessity. As winter temperatures rise in an era of climate change, the city’s distant water sources, fed by mountain snowmelt, are becoming less reliable. And drought years and battles over water allocation are adding to the difficulties. The State Water Project, which transfers water from the north to southern California, announced this year it would supply only five percent of the amount of water requested by agencies around the state (including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies parts of Los Angeles), because of the drought. Court rulings to protect endangered species have limited the amount of water L.A. and other cities can take from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

There’s no easy way for L.A. to get more water from distant sources, but new research from UCLA suggests that rainfall in the Los Angeles region is likely to stay the same on average in decades ahead.

Urban drainage in L.A. can never look like wild creeks, but restoring some capacity to store, slow, and filter water fixes many problems.

The city will need to become more water self-reliant to survive the rest of this century, and capturing local rain looks much more desirable than in the past. “There’s been a refocus on the value of local stormwater as a resource, not as a nuisance,” says Kerjon Lee, public affairs manager for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

During the 1990s, in the flat landscape of Sun Valley, a San Fernando Valley neighborhood at the foot of the Verdugo Mountains, Los Angeles engineers and bureaucrats began re-imagining what one could do with raindrops.

Sun Valley never stopped acting as a tributary of the Los Angeles River, even as many of its lots filled, over the past several decades, with sand and gravel pits, auto body shops, junkyards, metals recycling plants, and miscellaneous blue-collar industries. Now two-thirds of the land here is covered with what engineers call an “impervious surface,” like concrete or asphalt, which water cannot penetrate. The more such surfaces there are in a neighborhood, the more rainwater tends to puddle up and flood. Heavy rain can make many of Sun Valley’s streets impassable. In one of the worst storms, about a decade ago, a sinkhole swallowed up part of a major street that used to be a riverbed, and a city engineer tumbled in and died.

Sun Valley is one of a few areas of L.A. not served by the massive drainage system that sends stormwater either to San Pedro or Santa Monica Bay. In the 1990s, the county planned to build a series of storm drains throughout the neighborhood—until a local environmentalist and gadfly named Andy Lipkis stepped in and asked them to reconsider.

Lipkis founded an organization called TreePeople in the mid-1970s, when he was just a teenager. The organization eventually made its headquarters on the site of an old fire station in Coldwater Canyon Park, on the high ridgeline along Mulholland Drive, named after the famous engineer who designed the first system to import water to the city on a large scale. There, among the breezy, fragrant slopes of oak and bay trees, you can see what Lipkis has been trying to tell locals his whole life: Much of Los Angeles is part forest and part river.

In 1998, Lipkis rigged a south L.A. house with water cisterns and rain gardens, gathered a group of local officials, and staged a deluge, aiming fire hoses at the roof. The group watched with amazement as the lot soaked up thousands of gallons of water.

He convinced them to consider what, at the time, was a more experimental and costly approach to managing water in Sun Valley, which overlies the San Fernando Valley Groundwater Basin, an aquifer that supplies about 13 percent of L.A.’s water. Lipkis argued that the county and city could begin to revive some of the features of a natural watershed. The urban drainage-ways of Los Angeles can never quite look like wild creeks, but restoring some of their capacity to store, slow, and filter water fixes many problems at once. When stormwater gushes across pavement, it picks up debris and contamination; when it soaks into soil and enters an aquifer, it is cleaner. Conventional storm drains would have only cost about $40 million, while TreePeople says its recommendations were nearly five times as expensive. But the organization’s own analysis suggested that the latter would return at least $300 million in benefits to the city.

“There’s been a refocus on the value of local stormwater as a resource, not as a nuisance.”

Water managers brought the options to stakeholders and residents in the mostly Latino, working-class neighborhood. They chose Lipkis’ approach. “The community didn’t want more concrete,” says Lee.

Alicia Gonzales moved to Sun Valley in 1985, as a nine-year-old, after her parents “fell in love with the house” on Elmer Avenue. Then she and her family watched as the rains poured through her yard, turning it from grass to mud. She remembers how the rain would form a torrent in the alley near her family’s house. “Trash and shopping carts would get stuck there,” she says.

She moved out as a young adult, then returned several years ago to help her father, who was struggling with severe diabetes and kidney disease and needed regular dialysis.

When the streets flooded, many kids in the neighborhood stayed home. Gonzales often wouldn’t drive her daughters to school on rainy days. “My car would get stuck,” she said.

Though Lipkis had sowed the ideas for a new way to manage water here, years passed before anyone found the funding and wherewithal to solve Elmer Avenue’s flooding problems. In 2004, L.A. County finalized a new stormwater plan for Sun Valley. Two years later, the county finished its first project. Under a baseball and soccer field in Sun Valley Park, a tree-lined oasis in the middle of an industrial district, engineers installed a retention tank that collects runoff from the surrounding streets. In 2007, the county Flood Control District spent nearly $4 million to build drains, catch basins, and a tiny corner park at an intersection that used to turn into a deep lagoon in heavy rain—and was a favorite location for news crews to shoot dramatic footage of local storms.

About eight years ago, employees of TreePeople appeared on Gonzales’ block. They said that her street was part of a watershed, and stormwater from the mountains was pouring into her backyard. (When Gonzales first met Andy Lipkis, she says he rhapsodized about her parents’ olive tree, nearly the only landscaping that had survived the flood damage.) An organization called the Council for Watershed Health had partnered with TreePeople to renovate her street.

“There’s been a refocus on the value of local stormwater as a resource, not as a nuisance.”

The Council for Watershed Health led the effort to pull apart the street and put in rain barrels, rain gardens, underground water tanks, and water-permeable walkways and driveways. Gonzales got one of a few special grants to replant her muddy yard, and volunteers showed up at her house to help with the landscaping. The alley became a pedestrian walkway that the project organizers dubbed The Paseo, a meandering sidewalk lined with native plants between concrete-block walls, painted with the words, “Water is the driving force of life.” In rainstorms now, the water runs through the landscaping, and kids walk the path to school. Neighbors water their drought-tolerant plants with rain barrels, but most of the rain soaks in under the street.

As small as these three projects were—a single city block, a corner park, and a soccer field—they have gotten the attention of the entire region: two Southern California regional water districts, several Los Angeles city and county agencies, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and a number of state agencies got involved and provided funding for Elmer Avenue. These projects have become test cases for a much larger strategy to boost the water supply every time it rains across the entire region.

In Sun Valley, the county plans ultimately to capture nearly all of the rainwater that pours through the neighborhood. Next to Sun Valley Park, the city and county are planning to convert what is now a gravel pit and concrete plant into a 46-acre park that will collect in an average year about enough water to supply 4,000 Angelenos.

Their findings come at a crucial time. Crumbling infrastructure and a new court ruling are forcing the hands of local officials: A federal court has ordered the county to clean up the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, currently fouled by the dirt, grime, and toxins that wash from streets into storm drains. Meanwhile, billions of dollars worth of city water infrastructure is falling apart and has to be replaced before it breaks down.

The city of Santa Monica has set a goal to use only local water by 2020.

The city needs to both clean up its stormwater problem and find more water to drink. TreePeople says it could do both at once and is working with the City of Los Angeles to rewrite its entire stormwater management plan by next year. The county has undertaken a study, in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, to predict how climate change will affect local hydrology and what it can do to better capture stormwater. Water districts throughout the region are following suit: The Water Replenishment District of Southern California, which manages groundwater for parts of the region, has set a goal to wean itself off imported water altogether by treating and recycling wastewater and collecting more stormwater. The Council for Watershed Health released a study in 2012 estimating that the district could capture 5.5 billion gallons of water per year through more projects like Elmer Avenue.

The city of Santa Monica has set a goal to use only local water by 2020. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power estimates that by 2035, it will import just over half of its water (down from 85 percent), meet 9 percent of its water needs by conserving more, and supply 28 percent by using local groundwater, capturing stormwater, and recycling water from sewage. Water recycling and stormwater projects aren’t cheap, but they’re typically less costly than building high-energy desalination plants that distill water from the ocean. A new desalination plant is going up in Carlsbad, south of Los Angeles. But if groups like TreePeople and the Council succeed, southern California may not need to build many more facilities like this.

“We’re looking at how we could shift the amount of water we currently squander.” says Edith de Guzman, a researcher at TreePeople. More

Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Ostrander is a contributing editor to YES! and a 2014 National Health Journalism Fellow. She lives in Seattle and writes about the environment and climate change.