Sukkot, rain and Andy Lipkis’ vision for L.A.’s salvation from the drought

On the afternoon of Oct. 16, the final day of Sukkot, Jews will begin the annual practice of inserting a short but key line into the Amidah prayer: Mashiv haruach u morid hageshem: “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

In Jewish tradition, Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and, as it happens, for California as well. This year, in the Golden State, morid hageshem takes on heightened meaning, given that the nation’s most populous state is in its third consecutive year of drought, with about 80 percent of California experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, the most severe on a five-tier scale according to the United States Drought Monitor. 

And there is no end in sight, with the Climate Prediction Center forecasting that, at least through the end of the year, the state’s drought likely will persist and possibly even intensify.

Only 5.84 inches of rain have fallen in Los Angeles since the beginning of 2014 — about half the average amount — or, put another way, 39.2 billion fewer gallons of rainwater than falls on the city’s 469 square miles in a year of average rainfall.

But the problem is even bigger than those numbers indicate. In Los Angeles, an inordinate amount of the rain that falls on us makes no contribution to the city’s water supply — an estimated 80 percent of our rainfall flows directly into storm drains and heads out into the ocean, wasted before ever being used. One consequence is that for each gallon of water not captured, one gallon must be imported.

Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its water from the Owens Valley in Eastern California (270 miles away), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (380 miles away) and the Colorado River Aqueduct near Parker Dam — a 242-mile channel along the California-Arizona border (280 miles away) that was built and is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The MWD sells the water wholesale, supplying 1.7 billion gallons of water daily for use by 19 million people across Southern California. 

“The largest single use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over those mountains into Los Angeles,” said Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople. He pointed toward the mountain ranges abutting the Grapevine, the route through which our Sierra-sourced water flows through a huge — and hugely expensive — system of aqueducts and tunnels. 

TreePeople founder and president Andy Lipkis during construction of the cistern.

Lipkis, who made his name through his devotion to planting and preserving L.A.’s trees, has now also turned his attention to water conservation. He thinks L.A.’s complex and bureaucratic water system is completely nuts — and also completely fixable.

At a recent interview at TreePeople’s hilltop headquarters on Mulholland Drive, next to Coldwater Canyon Park, Lipkis explained how a city desperately thirsty for water could benefit from TreePeople’s decades of planting some 2 million trees and reproducing their natural water-storing ability.

Lipkis believes we can use technology to replicate citywide a tree’s natural and remarkable ability to capture and store rainwater. He predicts that if Los Angeles implements such a system, it would become both less reliant on imported water and less prone to flooding.  And maybe — Lipkis emphasizes that it’s a big maybe — the region could also become a little bit more flush with cash if a larger rainwater capture system bring about a smaller water bureaucracy and lower electric costs from not having to pump so much water over those mountains.

From a seed company to $4 million

An outdoorsy guy most comfortable in sneakers and shorts, Lipkis doesn’t look like a man who would be sought after by policymakers who want to get Los Angeles out of its state of perpetual water crisis. Yet, Lipkis founded TreePeople when he was just 18 and has grown it into a nonprofit with 45 employees, thousands of volunteers and a $4 million annual budget that is allowing the organization to use its technological know-how to influence politicians and leaders within L.A.’s massive water bureaucracy.

TreePeople got its start in 1973 as the California Conservation Project, with $10,000 Lipkis raised to plant 8,000 seedlings in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles. Those seedlings now have grown into smog-tolerant trees and have helped reduce the impact of the smog emanating from the city below. Lipkis often has said his inspiration grew out of summers he spent at Camp JCA Shalom.

By now, TreePeople has planted about 2 million trees and continues to do so with the help of an army of volunteers, and, in the process, Lipkis’ vision has broadened, so that he’s now hoping to bring a new ecology to L.A. based on what he’s learned about how trees function, and not only by planting more and more trees, but by bringing tree-inspired technologies such as rainwater cisterns, underground storage tanks and highly water absorbent gardens to as many homes, neighborhoods and schools as possible.

The encouraging point about TreePeople is this: Lipkis’ ideas don’t seek to reinvent the wheel, or the tree. Among one of the many life-giving features of the tree is the ability to capture rainfall, filter water into the ground, and then refill clean water in those natural underground aquifers that we all rely upon to store and provide clean water. Not to mention trees’ ability to cool urban areas and grow food, two of TreePeople’s other core missions.

Lipkis thinks that in addition to planting more trees across the city (including in densely urban areas) he can re-create a tree’s natural rain capture process. 

Lipkis’ enthusiasm was clear as he walked through a miniature urban landscape built on the TreePeople property, which demonstrates the difference between the quality of rainwater that has traveled over city surfaces, into sewers, through drains and into the ocean, versus rainwater that is engineered to flow into the ground, where it can be purified and stored naturally. 

Today’s cities, and L.A. in particular, were built to push whatever rain falls on their streets — billions of gallons of it, along with tons of trash of various sorts picked up en route — out to the ocean. All this waste occurs even as we search desperately for a solution to our water shortage. Even when the current drought ends, Los Angeles and much of the surrounding desert region still will rely on a water transportation system that needs rethinking, and is already being rethought by water officials in Orange County and San Diego. Orange County already has an operational wastewater purification plant, while in San Diego, a desalination plant is in the works. 

In Los Angeles, the good news for Lipkis, and the rest of us, is that city leaders and key local water agencies already are recognizing his tree-centered strategy as one method to address Southern California’s water shortage. The bad news is that the government’s water bureaucracy in Los Angeles is massive and it could take years for good ideas to blossom into policy.

Working closely with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the Department of Public Works and the Bureau of Sanitation to mass-scale rainwater-capture technology to Los Angeles, Lipkis projects that distributing and installing millions of rain cisterns that could hold thousands of gallons of water to residents across the city (just one relatively simple rain-capture technology) could be accomplished in a few years, as it was in parts of Australia, or it could take more than two decades —“It depends on the commitment of politicians,” Lipkis said.

His other hoped-for projects include installing massive underground cisterns and groundwater infiltrators under large public properties, such as parks and schools, which already has been done effectively by TreePeople at multiple sites in the San Fernando Valley.

For Lipkis, the most encouraging development is the recent acknowledgement by the city’s water bureaucracy at LADWP that improving stormwater capture infrastructure is a must. At a meeting in April, Lipkis said, James McDaniel, LADWP’s outgoing head of water — who was on vacation when the Journal sought comment — cited rain capture as the fastest way to bring new water to Angelenos.

The department’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan, begun in 2013, highlights many of TreePeople’s rain capture projects. It is set to be completed next year and outlines for lawmakers how the city can “increase the local water supply and reduce the dependence on expensive imported water.”

The TreePeople solution

Elmer Avenue, a residential block in Sun Valley, a neighborhood of L.A. 20 miles northwest of downtown, is dotted with one-story single-family homes. Parts of Sun Valley, including Elmer Avenue, used to have hazardous flooding problems, and until 2008, this street not only had no sidewalks or streetlamps, it didn’t have any storm drains.

Rainwater from neighborhoods north of Elmer Avenue would flow downhill and gather in giant puddles on the street, making driving and walking nearly impossible during and after a rainfall. For TreePeople and a group of other nonprofits and agencies led by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (now the Council for Watershed Health), Elmer Avenue’s predicament became a perfect site to experiment with a rainwater capture model.

Today, the street looks like one of the newest residential blocks in the city — new sidewalks, a newly paved road and, to Lipkis’ delight, a sophisticated rainwater-capture system. Front yards are filled with plants and native trees that require little water to survive but also store large amounts of moisture. When rainwater hits the street, it flows into drains that direct the water to a 5.2 million-gallon underground infiltration apparatus, which then filters the water into the ground. That’s where nature takes over and brings it to a natural underground aquifer. 

Rain that falls on houses is directed via gutters into rain barrels, onto lawns, and to porous driveways as well as to trees and swales — depressions that store water until they soak into the ground — next to the sidewalk. And if the swale fills up? The excess flows into the street, where it then flows to a nearby drain that leads to a large underground water storage device that eventually will redirect the water into a natural aquifer.

This simple but effective system echoes similar rainwater-capture projects that TreePeople has implemented at Hillery T. Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, the Hall House in South Los Angeles and at Sun Valley Park. With these experiments, TreePeople has demonstrated on a small scale what Lipkis believes Los Angeles should, can and eventually will do on a much larger one.

Left: A playground at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima before intervention by TreePeople.
Right: Hidden underground technology now drains the landscaped field, preventing flooding and preserving water for use.

Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director for L.A.’s Department of Public Works, has worked closely with TreePeople on reducing flooding in Sun Valley and increasing its rainwater capture. “It’s scalable across all of the county of Los Angeles,” Pestrella said, alluding to the fact that while transforming Los Angeles and L.A. County’s water bureaucracy would be a major hurdle, he is grateful his department “thankfully listened” to TreePeople when it proposed a solution to Sun Valley’s flood issues.

Unlike “environmental groups [that] raise money for policy for various things” and aren’t held accountable when they don’t make a positive change, as Lipkis put it, TreePeople already has garnered the attention of a who’s-who of the local water bureaucracy and water agencies and officials, who have cited the group’s projects in Sun Valley and in other parts of the city as evidence that rainwater capture is one part of the water solution. 

In late October, TreePeople will lead a trip to Australia that will include officials from LADWP, the Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Sanitation, the L.A. City Council, the state’s water board and staffers from the offices of Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Lipkis’ goal is to show local and state water policymakers how Australia has dealt with a perpetual water crisis by harvesting rainwater.

Lipkis’ water dream is not an environmentalist’s pipe dream, either. LADWP noted in its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan that “TreePeople has demonstrated that rainwater is a viable local water resource,” and that the water agency and the nonprofit have agreed to work closely to identify opportunities for “widespread groundwater recharge.”

Andy Shrader, director of environmental affairs for L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who sits on MWD’s board, said Koretz, too, “has been pushing MWD to increase their local water projects to include stormwater.”

“[With] the TreePeople model where you put a cistern in somebody’s front yard and try to capture as much as you can,” Shrader said, “you can really [use that water to] take care of especially your outdoor watering needs pretty handily.”

Also on board are Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar — who said there is “no question” L.A. needs a more ambitious rainwater-capture plan —and Garcetti, who wrote in his 2014-15 budget summary that he wants to cut L.A.’s reliance on imported water in half by 2025. It’s evident that an updated water policy is on the agenda of L.A.’s political class, the ones who might make it happen.

A piece of a larger puzzle

To be sure, the Elmer Avenue project was expensive. It cost $2.7 million to remodel just one residential block. To re-create this throughout Los Angeles, a city with 6,500 miles of paved roads, would not be practical, says Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, who nevertheless believes rainwater capture should and will play a key role in any sustainable water solution.

“The problem with Elmer Avenue is that it really, really was too expensive to do widely,” Pincetl said. She instead proposes that new and existing buildings in Los Angeles be retrofitted as “low-impact” sites so as to include technologies to filter rain into the ground instead of into the flood control system that pumps water into the sea. 

“Find opportunities on all properties to infiltrate rainwater,” Pincetl said. “That is the future if, in fact, we are serious about water conservation and using the precious resources that we have.”

Los Angeles, Pincetl added, was built “when we thought we could import as much water as we needed.” And at a time at the beginning of the 20th century, when transporting water was cheap and the sources were plentiful, why not? “There was no idea of conservation,” she said.

Conservation, rainwater capture, wastewater (i.e. sewage) recycling — all of it will play some role in L.A.’s water fix, and all of it already has been used to some extent as far away as Australia and as near as Orange County.

One small and logistically simple part of the water solution would be the use of rainwater cisterns, which can be hooked up and retrofitted to a home’s gutter. Coastal cities in Australia that have climates similar to Los Angeles’ are now models for this simple means of water conservation. There, residents consume only about 60 gallons of municipal water per day, compared to the approximately 150 gallons per day used by the average home Los Angeles. 

In South East Queensland, for example, homes without rain cisterns used 135 gallons of municipal water per day compared to 101 gallons in homes with cisterns, a 12,000-gallon difference over the course of the year, for just one home.

Just to the south of Los Angeles, Orange County has developed its own water solution, a $481 million wastewater purification — “toilet to tap” — plant that uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light to purify 70 million gallons of recycled water every day, providing enough water for about 100,000 people’s daily use. 

Michael Marcus, Orange County Water District’s general manager, said his county is able to meet 72 percent of its water needs from its groundwater basin, one-third of which is filled up by purified wastewater. 

As a result, Marcus said, Orange County purchases most of the rest of its water from the municipal water district, a stark contrast to Los Angeles’ 90 percent reliance on imported water. “If we didn’t have that,” Marcus added. “We’d be in very, very desperate shape.” In terms of cost, Orange County spends about $500 per acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, when factoring the nearly $100 million in grants it received to construct the purification plant. But even removing those grants, the county is spending about $850 per acre-foot, Marcus said, still less than the $900 to $1,000 charged by MWD in Los Angeles for its imported water. 

“The [cost] lines have crossed,” Marcus said, referring to the fact that as the water supply shrinks and its price rises, previously expensive-looking solutions like water recycling and rainwater capture suddenly make more financial sense. 

Los Angeles already has embarked on a wastewater purification experiment —the West Basin Municipal Water District in L.A. provides purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in the county.

David Nahai, who formerly served from 2007 to 2009 as CEO of LADWP and is now a consultant on water technology and renewable energy, makes the point that imported water “ain’t cheap and it ain’t unlimited.” As a result, the Orange County solution and the TreePeople solution today should appear more affordable in light of the inevitable future costs of maintaining a system that so heavily relies on imported water.

Of course, relying on rain provides its own uncertainty, namely, how much rain actually falls. “It’s part of the solution. It’s not the solution,” said Mark Gold, acting director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It’s got to be in conjunction with recycled water.”

“It isn’t going to be cheap,” he said, “but you’ve got to look at it in the context of the cost of importing water.

“It’s going to cost billions of dollars one way or the other, so the question before us is how much of that is going to be based on improving water infrastructure from imported water supply, and how much is going to be from modernizing infrastructure from our local water supply?”

A plan that saves water and saves money would also help fund badly needed maintenance of the city’s water transportation infrastructure — LADWP is tasked with replacing main water lines only once every 300 years. Although reducing the wait time to once every 100 years would cost about $4 billion, one cost of not having the money to make needed repairs was made apparent in July when a 90-year-old water main near UCLA burst and flooded Sunset Boulevard and the campus with upward of 20 million gallons of water.

100 agencies to do nature’s work

UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities is in the process of analyzing Los Angeles County’s system of water importation, production, distribution and governance. It already has counted more than 100 government and private entities currently involved in slicing up the water pie.

Any new or modernized water structure, no matter how efficient or intelligent, undoubtedly will involve bureaucracy, some reliance on far-off sources and will also still need to involve a flood control system that pumps some rainwater into the ocean. 

But, as Lipkis suggests, the bureaucracy may not have to be so large. 

In Los Angeles, the current inefficient water delivery system means the water that flows out of your tap may have arrived from multiple sources, because so many government agencies are involved in moving it through deserts and over mountains to get to your home, while also making sure that it is safe to use.

When rain falls, for example, around the town of Green River, Wyo., 830 miles from Los Angeles, it seeps into a watershed basin, flows into the Green River, which feeds the Colorado River, which flows southwest through Utah and Arizona before reaching the intake point of the Colorado River Aqueduct north of Parker Dam that is operated by the MWD.

It is at that point that MWD must pump the water 280 miles from the aqueduct to Los Angeles, a major technological challenge. A 2011 Los Angeles Times story described the enormous amount of electricity required at just one of the five pumping plants along the route: On a single November day in 2011, the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant, east of Indio, had to propel more than 6 million tons of water over a 441-foot-high mountain. It took six 12,500-horsepower electric motors to get the water to a Riverside County reservoir.

And that’s just the water that feeds Los Angeles from the east. Another source is rain that falls in the northern Sierra Nevada, which finds its way to the 1.1 trillion-gallon-capacity Lake Oroville Reservoir, then must travel 450 miles to get to Los Angeles. 

Flowing downhill and emptying eventually into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (one of three of L.A.’s import sources), the California Aqueduct then ferries the water south in huge snaking pipes across the flat Central Valley and over the Grapevine, side by side with the notoriously steep run of the I-5 freeway. 

Pumping water from the Chrisman Pumping Plant over those mountains requires 44,000-horsepower pumps.

At the Edmonston Pumping Plant 14 miles away at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains (84 miles north of downtown L.A.), an official with the California Department of Water Resources told a Capital Public Radio reporter in an October 2013 interview that it takes 14 pumps to push water the 2,000 feet over the mountain. 

More power still is needed to transport the water to reach homes and businesses in Los Angeles, and MWD is not in the business of retail sales — that’s where LADWP comes in. As the largest municipal utility in the nation, LADWP purchased more than 126 billion gallons of drinkable water in fiscal year 2013, and 145 billion gallons this fiscal year, for $280 million and about $300 million, respectively, from MWD’s pumped-in water. Last fiscal year, LADWP sold 179 billion gallons of water for more than $1 billion to homes, apartments, businesses and factories throughout Los Angeles, almost all of which eventually became sewage treated for solid waste and piped into the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles Harbor, Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean. 

In its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan — which is updated every five years as required by state law — LADWP acknowledged the city’s deficient rainwater-capture infrastructure, noting current facilities “are inadequate for capturing runoff during very wet years.” The agency laid out an ambitious $251 million rainwater-capture program in collaboration with the Department of Public Works that it aims to complete by 2018. Although the report and its suggestions do not carry the force of law, it serves as a “master plan” and guidebook for agencies involved in water use and water supply.

The plan calls for doubling Los Angeles’ current rain-capture capabilities to about 40 percent of rainfall, up from the current 20 percent.

Furthering the costs, and the waste, is the problem of flooding by undirected rainfall. L.A. County’s Flood Control District has the herculean task of minimizing flooding by using a massive system of 14 dams and reservoirs, 487 miles of canals and 2,900 miles of underground drains to make sure that the majority of the rain that doesn’t feed into the ground makes it to the ocean.

It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much this gargantuan system costs on an annual basis, but the Department of Public Works’ budget for fiscal year 2014-15 is more than $2 billion, with its “water resources” service area making up 44 percent of that, or about $661 million.

On the enforcement side, California’s and L.A.’s water shortage have led to irksome water-use restrictions, fines of up to $500 for wasting water, #droughtshaming Twitter hashtags used by citizen water tattlers and “water cops,” LADWP inspectors who hand out warning letters and who have the authority to levy fines.

When nature isn’t allowed to do its work, as Lipkis said, government fills in.

Cast against this seemingly endless list of departments and agencies that bring water to our taps and keep it out of our streets, schools and yards is the tree, simple in its appearance but complex and vital in its function.

Lipkis likes to cite two events when discussing rain — he mentioned them both during the interview and in a follow-up email. In 2013, although only 3.6 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles, that rain would have generated 29 billion gallons of fresh, drinkable water — enough to give 6,500 gallons to all of this city’s 4 million residents “had it been captured in cisterns, swales and aquifer recharge facilities,” Lipkis said. “It wasn’t, but could have been.”

When just 4 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles in late February, TreePeople’s underground cistern collected 81,000 gallons of water. And that water was on hand one particularly hot summer day, when an L.A. fire engine came to Coldwater Canyon Park, red lights flashing, tasked with finding water that could be used by fire helicopters in the event that the local (imported) water supply was disrupted.

Pulling up to the cul-de-sac where TreePeople has a massive underground water cistern, the fire engine stopped, and a firefighter asked Lipkis for his help. The firefighter said words that, unless changes come about, all too many residents and government officials across the city also could be saying soon:  

“We heard you had water.”


For the Record:

Oct. 20: This article has been changed to reflect that David Nahai served as CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from 2007 to 2009; an earlier version said he “briefly served as CEO of LADWP.”

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