The future of water in Los Angeles: What the Israeli experience can show us

Most people in Los Angeles don’t feel just how serious the city’s water predicament is.

After all, we are enjoying a respite right now; last year was a banner year for snow and rain. However, just three years ago we were battling a drought so severe that we had to have water rationing in Los Angeles. The anemic 2012 numbers for the Sierra Nevada snowpack (which provides most of our water) portend another shortage around the corner. 

Nearly 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away — the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta. All three of these sources are under pressure — imports from the Colorado River are capped, deliveries from the Delta are no longer fully dependable in view of the fragility of its ecosystem and the instability of its protective levies, and supplies from the Owens Valley have been significantly curtailed due to environmental obligations and an erratic snowpack. Steep price increases are projected for shipments from the Colorado and the Delta. We have to face the fact that the days of cheap, abundant imported water may be numbered. To compound matters, our sole indigenous resource of any consequence, our groundwater aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, which provides for around 10 percent of our consumption, is suffering from such contamination that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has had to close a substantial number of its wells.

Climate change will exacerbate the situation. Los Angeles is heavily dependent on the Sierra snowpack that feeds L.A.’s own aqueduct and the supply from the Sacramento Delta. The Sierra Nevada snowpack (effectively California’s largest surface-water reservoir) has already diminished by 10 percent since 1950 and will continue to shrink as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. LADWP has projected that by 2050 a water shortage worse than the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years.

We must act now to shape a better destiny for our city — one built to a greater extent on our homegrown water resources. This is not a new concept. Indeed, this is exactly what the 2008 Water Supply Plan, drafted during my tenure at LADWP and announced by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, espouses. It is disheartening that four years after its release, its tenets still remain distant goals — the result of our failure as a city to garner the political will and gather the funding necessary to provide for our future. LADWP is currently attempting to obtain rate increases to finance the programs envisaged by the Water Supply Plan, such as wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation and underground storage. Angelenos should support this effort.

In envisioning this road to a new water future, it may be helpful to study the experience of other countries that have made radical changes in their water portfolios. 

One such country is Israel. 

Israel has suffered a chronic water shortage for years. By the mid-1990s, a combination of unrelenting drought, population growth, urbanization (impeding the normal recharge of aquifers from rainfall) and man-made pollution led to the depletion and degradation of Israel’s natural water resources — Lake Kinneret and the country’s mountain and coastal aquifers. This crisis threatened the very adequacy of the country’s domestic water supply. As a result, Israel has embarked on a wide-ranging strategy that includes desalination, wastewater reclamation, conservation, infrastructure upgrade and rate reform strategies — all under the jurisdiction and leadership of Mekorot, the Israeli national water company. 

Israel has already begun to reap benefits from its water revolution, accomplishing the highest rate of wastewater reclamation in the world, an enviable conservation record and landmark advances in desalination processes. Mekorot has emerged as a world leader in water technologies and is today sharing its expertise and engaging in global business transactions. In effect, Israel’s actions to solve its water crisis have become exportable assets providing valuable know-how to others while also bringing revenues to Mekorot.

This is not to suggest that Israel and Los Angeles are in the same position; Israel’s water exigencies are certainly graver that any presently confronting Los Angeles, and Israel’s geopolitical and security situations place it under much greater pressures than we in Los Angeles can even begin to imagine. However, there are some intriguing parallels between Los Angeles and Israel. Both have a semiarid climate, and both face recurrent droughts and the uncertainties of climate change. Israel and Los Angeles also have similar policies for dealing with their respective water supply problems. 

However, there is at least one important distinction: Israel has staked its water future, to a large extent, on seawater desalination; Los Angeles has not, although desalination technologies are utilized in wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and other methodologies. As can be seen from the list below, ocean desalination is conspicuously missing from the L.A. Water Supply Plan as a strategy for obtaining a new water resource for the city. This is because, unlike Israel, Los Angeles has a long way to go in first attaining practical levels of wastewater recycling, conservation, rain capture and aquifer purification before it can justify desalinating the ocean (given the high monetary and environmental cost of this choice); Israel has already substantially exhausted these other options and has determined that it has no choice but to turn to the Mediterranean. It is reported that Israel will spend around $15 billion on its five new coastal desalination plants. Mekorot is regarded as peerless in terms of optimizing the design and operation of desalination plants to reduce cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts, but the fact remains that for us in Los Angeles, desalination is the most expensive of treatment technologies (especially compared to wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and conservation), the most energy intensive and the most problematic as far as environmental effects are concerned (considering the land area needed and marine life and brine disposal matters). It makes little sense for Los Angeles to pursue ocean desalination as a first-tier policy when it is recycling negligible amounts of its wastewater (see below). It would be illogical to clean our wastewater, dump it in the ocean, and then suck it back up and desalinate it; we need to reclaim and reuse that wastewater before it hits the ocean. Still, Israel’s advances are of tremendous benefit to us because these desalination technologies can be applied to other water purification methods beyond seawater desalination.

As a first step for Los Angeles, we need to recognize that our imported-water model (compounded by the advent of climate change) may simply not be sustainable as we seek a secure, affordable, adequate water supply for the Los Angeles of tomorrow. The 2008 Water Supply Plan already gives us the blueprint; we now need the leadership, and LADWP needs the funding, to implement it.

Let’s review the strategies for Los Angeles:

Conservation. Los Angeles has done extremely well; our population has grown by more than a million people over the last 25 years, and yet our water consumption has actually declined. Our per capita use is now less than 120 gallons a day, the lowest of any American city with a population of more than a million people. During my tenure at LADWP, we were able to dramatically reduce water consumption levels using the combination of a public outreach campaign, the enactment of the Water Conservation Ordinance (together with the deployment of the Water Conservation Team to enforce it), a rate regime to send a potent conservation signal, and a panoply of rebates and incentives to encourage behavior change. The positive results of those steps are still with us today. But, we can do better. We may be able to boast a low consumption rate in contrast to other American cities, but not in relation to other parts of the world. As a point of comparison, the per capita daily consumption number for Israelis is around 70 gallons. This is partly because a water conservation ethos is taught to Israelis from a very young age, an example we are now emulating in Los Angeles. Let’s remember also that around 40 percent of the water used in Los Angeles is outside the home — those ubiquitous sprinklers quenching the relentless thirst of lawns. By installing California landscaping and drip irrigation, a great deal of water can be saved.     

Infrastructure. Our pipelines are deteriorating, and current replacement and repair programs aren’t keeping pace. Across the United States, there are more than 240,000 water-main breaks annually (650 per day). It is estimated that this translates to wasting 7 billion gallons per day. Around 20 percent of LADWP’s pipelines are more than 100 years old. Strengthening LADWP’s repair and replacement program will protect the integrity of the system and provide a new source of water.

New building standards. We have made great strides in Los Angeles with our fixtures ordinance, which requires water-saving appliances to be incorporated in new development; the Low Impact Development Ordinance; the Green Building Ordinance; and other measures. Much more can be done by way of legal mandates, especially with respect to gray-water systems, cisterns, metering and other design features to conserve water. 

Wastewater recycling. This has to be a crucial element of any program to produce new water. In Los Angeles, we’ve spent billions of dollars building state-of-the-art plants to treat our wastewater to a high degree (secondary and tertiary levels), only to throw it away in the ocean. Other jurisdictions have long discovered that wastewater is an asset and have devised ways to reclaim it safely and affordably. Israel now reclaims almost 80 percent of its wastewater for irrigation and industrial uses. In Los Angeles itself, our rate is a paltry 2 percent. LADWP plans a substantial expansion of reuse projects for both nonpotable and potable applications. 

Rainfall capture. It is estimated that 60 percent of the rain that falls on Los Angeles is wasted. It hits impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots) and runs untreated to the ocean through an extensive storm drain system, only to foul the coast. This is both a water quantity and water quality problem. It is a central paradox of our city that in exactly this place so dependent on imported water we treat our own rainfall like some evil force to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We have to learn to build differently so that we don’t continually add impermeable areas. Here, our Low Impact Development Ordinance and other regulatory mandates are steps in the right direction. Israel, too, has to address the issue of lost rain as a result of urbanization that precludes the natural seepage of rain to recharge groundwater. Mekorot builds and operates catchments for the retention of rain. One example is the facility at the Shikma River, south of the City of Ashkelon, which can store up to 6 million cubic meters (nearly 5,000 acre feet) of rainwater.

Aquifer remediation. Roughly 10 percent of our water comes from our own aquifer in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a tragedy that this irreplaceable resource is suffering from contamination from human activities, which continues to spread. To its credit, LADWP has decided to execute a plan to save this basin. Israel is likewise no stranger to the qualitative deterioration of groundwater resources (as a result of over-extraction, seawater intrusion and anthropogenic pollution) and to the means that can be employed to redress these problems. In Israel, contamination caused by human activity menacing the coastal aquifer includes nitrates (probably from fertilizers), fuel (from leaks at oil refineries), volatile organic compounds (from industrial activities) and perchlorate, a rocket fuel. Pollution from pesticides and fertilizers has also posed a threat to the health of Lake Kinneret. 

Underground storage. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, it is foreseeable that long dry spells will follow periods of heavy precipitation, that the Sierras will receive more rain than snow, and that the pattern and timing of snowmelt will change. This all points to the need to store water underground during the times of plenty for use in the lean years. Storing underground avoids losses due to evaporation and contamination resulting from aerial deposition.

The foregoing, then, is the roadmap for providing a degree of water security for Los Angeles as we contemplate a future in which our imported water sources won’t expand and may well contract as climate change takes hold and other factors play out.

The problem, of course, is to find the funding necessary for these programs. Achieving a rate increase in Los Angeles is a very political, public, often contentious exercise. Rate revisions require a broad-based, painstaking, time-consuming campaign — a dialogue with every segment of society, including business, labor, environmental, neighborhood and faith-based groups — so that these stakeholders will take ownership of the issue and, in turn, pressure the decision-makers to do what is necessary. Further, it’s not just the rate increase that needs to be explained and defended, but also the rate design because we must ensure that the burden of the rate hikes won’t fall on those least able to bear them. LADWP is going through this process right now and the L.A. City Council is scheduled to consider the requested rate additions in August.

In 2010, Israelis acceded to a number of rate increases, starting with a whopping 25 percent hike in January 2010 (with subsequent additional raises) to support construction of desalination plants. This was a difficult, divisive process in Israel, but most Israelis were convinced of the need for the increases. Our water officials in Los Angeles must gain the trust of Angelenos; I firmly believe that if our rate-payers have confidence in the truth of the reasons being offered for rate increases, they will support them, even in harsh economic times. Otherwise, we will be courting a water crisis.

H. David Nahai is a consultant and attorney specializing in water, energy and real estate matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, chair of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative.