Sunday, January 2, 2011

Changes over a Century: The Los Angeles Water Policy

I.        Introduction

In 1908, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) started constructing its first Los Angeles Aqueduct (LA Aqueduct). One hundred years later in 2008, the City of Los Angeles published Securing L.A.’s Water – City of Los Angeles Water Supply Action Plan (Action Plan) (City of Los Angeles, 2008). The target of the Action Plan is to meet all new demand through a combination of conservation and recycling. It is obvious that the City has stepped out of the “box” of growth-oriented water policy[1], which it built a hundred ago.
In this essay, I try to give a glimpse on the water policy changes of Los Angeles over the last 100 years through the comparison between the Action Plan and the LA Aqueduct Report (Kelly, 1916)[2]. I hope to shed light on the historical paths towards the water policy changes and what we can learn from that for future water policy and planning.

II.     Los Angeles Water Supply Action Plan (Action Plan)

The Action Plan started by explicitly stating the challenges that Los Angeles is facing. The population of Los Angeles has kept growing over the last four decades, reaching 4 million. The year of 2007 witnessed the lowest snowpack on record in Eastern Sierra, where Los Angeles historically receives the most share of its water supply through LA Aqueduct. Another water supply source – the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California- was facing the Federal Court charge to limit its export. The City is committed to environmental mitigation and enhancements in the Owens Valley and Mono Lake Basin, which diverts one half of the historical water received from East Sierra. Local groundwater in San Fernando Valley faces the problem of contamination. Climate change also makes the situation more complicated.
To tackle the above challenges, the Action Plan proposed a set of short-term and long-term conservation strategies, as summarized in Table 1. The short-term strategies mainly focus on enforcement and outreach, while the long-term strategies mainly focus on technological improvements. It has been two years since the Action Plan was written, so I visited the LADWP website[3] to find more information on the implementation status of these strategies.
Table 1 Short-term and Long-term Strategies (City of Los Angeles, 2008)
Short-term conservation strategies
Enforcing prohibited uses of water
Expanding prohibited uses of water
Extending outreach effort
Encouraging regional conservation measures
Long-term conservation and recycling measures
Reduction of outdoor water use
Maximizing water recycling
Enhancing stormwater capture
Accelerating clean-up of the groundwater basin
Expanding groundwater storage
The first message jumped out at me when I opened the LADWP website was a piece of announcement - “NEW WATERING DAYS NOW IN EFFECT”. According to the revised Water Conservation Ordinance effective from Aug 25th, 2010, residents are required to rotate their lawn watering days based on their address numbers (odd address numbers can water their lawn on Mon, Wed, and Fri, while even numbers can water lawns on Tue, Thu, and Sun). The duration of watering is limited up to 15 min (City of Los Angeles 2010). The Water Conservation Ordinance also prohibits residents from using water on hard surfaces such as sidewalks, walkways, driveways or parking areas. Residents are also not allowed to use water to clean, fill or maintain decorative fountains unless the water is part of a recirculation system.
In addition to the mandatory water conservation ordinance, LADWP also initiated a few outreach programs on water conservation. The Residential Water Conservation Rebate Program provides rebates to residents for water efficient washers, toilets, weather-based irrigation controllers, and rotating sprinkler nozzles. LADWP also offers incentives to residential customers who replace traditional lawns with drought tolerant plants and organizes free landscape workshops to raise awareness. Moreover, the website provides water conservation tips for local residents.
LADWP has been developing programs to use recycled water for non-potable uses. Reclaimed water from the 20-million-gallon per day Los Angeles Glendale Water Reclamation Plant is used to irrigate two golf courses in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, supply cooling water to a Glendale power plant, and irrigate  roadside landscape along the Golden State Freeway. A second 40-million-gallon per day facility, the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, supplies irrigation water to golf courses and parks in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

III. What Have Been Changed and Remained?

By reading the Action Plan and skimming the website of LADWP, I found that water policies of Los Angeles have changed fundamentally over the last 100 years. Compared to the LA Aqueduct Report (Kelly, 1916), the Action Plan is a very modest document. It neither puts forward any aspirations in conquering the nature nor intends to get more water for Los Angeles from distant sources. Instead, it looks inwardly on what could be and should be done within its existing water resources to meet the perceived demand growth.
First of all, the Action Plan sees conservation as a paramount strategy. Since the early 1980s, the City has invested millions of dollars in water efficiency improvement measures, particularly the installation of low-flow toilets and show head. And now, it tries to realize the paradigm shift through behavioral change, which, to some extent, means sacrifice. Seen from the enforcement and incentive programs initiated, the City is resolute to make it happen. The result of the conservation efforts is obvious. The city is using over 100,000 acre-feet less than it did in 1990, despite of the population growth over the last two decades (City of Los Angeles, 2008).
Second, the advancement of water recycling technology allows the City to use water more than once. Since the early 1990s, the City has been aggressively working on recycling wastewater for non-potable uses, such as irrigation, industrial use, seawater barrier, and environmental beneficial purposes. These projects did not face much opposition. Nowadays, the water recycling technology (e.g. Reverse Osmosis and Ultra-violet) can treat wastewater into potable standard. Even though, for aesthetic and psychological reasons, the drinkable water is usually used to replenish groundwater or mix with reservoir water. This is called the indirect potable uses, which have been proved successful in many places like Singapore[4] and Orange County (Archibold, 2007). However, the City found it challenging to change people’s mindset. In 2000, a public outcry against toilet-to-tap forced the City to shut down a $55 million project that would replenish groundwater and provide enough water for 120,000 homes (Haefele, 2007). Since then, no more water recycling program had been built for indirect potable purposes. It is proposed in the Action Plan that “[t]he critical water shortage facing Los Angeles today makes it imperative that the City revisit this strategy, understanding that this initiative will require extensive public education, as well as thorough discussion and vetting through a public process.” Recycling water for indirect potable use is a direction for Los Angeles.
Third, the Action Plan also proposes several stormwater capture projects to replenish groundwater. Due to the increased urbanization in Los Angeles suburban country, natural lands are replaced by impervious surfaces such as roads, buildings, driveways, and pavements. These impervious surfaces prevent stormwater from recharging groundwater. The Action Plan proposes to capture stormwater through some big infrastructure projects to spread water above aquifer. Retrofitting of urban neighborhood to create more open space is also included in the Action Plan.
Fourth, some environmental mitigation efforts have been made in Owens Valley since 1990s. Based on the thirteen environmental impacts identified in the 1991 Owens Valley Environmental Impact Report (EIR), LADWP is legally bound to carry out 42 environmental mitigation projects in Owens Valley. LADWP needs to report annually on the status of the mitigation projects. Up to the 2010 Report, 29 of these mitigation projects have been completed or fully implemented, ten of them are currently partially implemented, and three are in planning phase (LADWP, 2010). About half of the water historically delivered by LA Aqueduct water has been diverted for these mitigation projects, which involve Owens River rewatering, Owens Lake Dust mitigation, regreening of watershed, and aquatic habitat conservation in Owens Valley.
There are some things haven’t changed over the 100 years, though. LADWP is still the only municipal utility that has its monopoly power over the City’s water and energy supply. Its gigantic bureaucratic style is reflected on its website – slow in updates, lack of transparency, and “educating” the public. When talking about its environmental mitigation projects in Owens Valley, the website uses the same tone as in the LA Aqueduct project that the City of Los Angeles is doing a favor to Owens Valley. Here is a quote from the website, “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power manages natural resources and land uses throughout the Owens Valley to insure the health of the Owens River watershed, including public recreation, riparian habitat, wildlife, and agricultural activities.” This is a bombastic statement over the environmental mitigation projects that the City is carrying out as compensation. Moreover, whenever there is a new program, the department always intends to enforce or “educate” the public instead of working with the public. There are very few outreach programs, which is still at the tokenism rung at public participation ladder (Arnstein, 1969).

IV.  The Path towards Changes

The changes did not happen naturally. There were at least two forces that drove the changes since 1970s. The first force is the environmental movement in the sixties, which promoted environmental legislation and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) (Rome, 2010). Mostly coming from outside of Los Angeles, this force empowered the Owens Valley with a weapon to protect their resources. The second force is the deterioration of political consensus for growth within Los Angeles (Purcell, 2000).
In 1970, Los Angeles had just completed its 2nd Aqueduct and started pumping groundwater out of Owens Valley. Inyo County filed a suit against Los Angeles under the new California Environmental Quality Act, mandating the City to prepare Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for LA Aqueduct[5]. To satisfy this requirement, LADWP submitted a short EIR in 1976 and a second one in 1979, both of which were rejected as inadequate by the courts. In 1991, the city of Los Angeles finally reached agreement with Inyo County and signed the Inyo-Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement (Water Agreement). But the 3rd EIR prepared by LADWP was challenged by Native Americans and the environmentalist group. The next six years saw numerous back-and-forth negotiations on environmental issues (Leigh & Prather, 2006). It was until 1997 that all EIR settlements were reached and that Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). According to the MOU, LADWP agreed to restore the 62 miles of lower Owens River that had been diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but it delayed doing so until it was brought to court again in 2005 (Leigh & Prather, 2006). On December 6, 2006, a ceremony was held to re-start the flow of the Owens River. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses during the ceremony, “This is a new chapter in our relationship with the Owens Valley. We can't take back what happened here 90 years ago, but we can make it better." David Nahai, the president of LA Water and Power Board, countered Mulholland’s words from 1913 and said “there it is, take it back [6](Leigh & Prather, 2006).
“The political belief of the City of Los Angeles was that the growth is paramount.” -This is what I sensed from the LA Aqueduct Report. Land speculation in San Fernando Valley and the sprawl of LA’s suburban country after the Aqueduct was built well explained the growth machine theory that Molotch proposed (Molotch, 1976). However, according to Purcell, the political consensus for growth in Los Angeles has steadily deteriorated in the last two decades (Purcell, 2000). He made the point that globalization transported the land-based interests outside of the country and edge-city phenomena made local land-based interests more geographically fragmented. Residents and environmentalists who favor slow-growth could put forward their agenda due to the relatively weak growth coalition. I agree with his arguments. In water policy, instead of reaching out for more resources to support growth, the political attention is paid more inwardly at existing resources, considering alternatives such as conservation, recycling, stromwater capture, and growndwater cleanup.

V.     Conclusions and Implications

Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.”  This was what happened in Owens Valley before 1970. After that, changes have happened, although sometimes they came slowly and sometimes they seemingly went backwards. But the transition of Los Angeles’ water policy from a growth-oriented “Messianic Fervor”[7] to a modest inward pursuit is an immutable trend.
William Mulholland attempted to conquer the nature when he delivered water from 200 miles away to Los Angeles. Mulholland and the City of Los Angeles thought they had conquered the nature after the construction of LA Aqueduct, but we now know that they had failed. That part of history taught us that we should design with nature instead of conquering it. Perhaps, Los Angeles should not grow that big from the beginning. The next several decades will see how LADWP change people’s behaviors and mindsets to promote conservation and recycling. Hopefully, they can engage and empower the public, rather than simply enforcing or educating them. More efforts need to be paid on participatory policy making and planning process.
After all, neither the nature nor the people are conquerable.

VI.  References

Archibold, R. (2007). From Sewage, Added Water for Drinking. New York Times. Retrieved from
Arnstein, S. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35(4), 216-224.
City of Los Angeles. (2008). Securing L.A.'s Water Supply - City of Los Angeles Water Supply Action Plan. Water Supply. Los Angeles. Retrieved from
Haefele, M. B. (2007). Making Water. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. Retrieved from
Kelly, A. (1916). Complete report on construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct (p. 319). Department of Public Service. Retrieved from
LADWP. (2010). Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Annual Owens Valley Report. Los Angeles.
Leigh, A., & Prather, M. (2006). There It Is, Take It Back - Owens River Flows Again after 90 years. Sierra Club. Retrieved from
Molotch, H. (1976). The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. American Journal of Sociology, 82(2), 309.
Purcell, M. (2000). The Decline Of The Political Consensus For Urban Growth: Evidence from Los Angeles. Journal of Urban Affairs, 22(1), 85-100.
Rodwin, L. (2003). Neighbors Are Needed. The Journal of American History, 90(2), 525-554.
Rome, A. (2010). "Give Earth a Chance": The Environmental Movement and the Sixties. Organization, 90(2), 525-554.

[1] When I was reading the Los Angeles Aqueduct report, I noted that “the City was confined in a ‘box’ that in order to keep growing, they had to get more and more water”.
[2] The report I looked at in the early plan assignment
[4] The Singapore NEWater Program website:
[5] This part of history is posted on LADWP website
[6] When the 1st LA Aqueduct completed, Mulholland made the most succinct speech, “ There it is, take it!”
[7] The word is adopted from Cadillac Dessert book review group

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