Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Water in California

by Erik Porse

Cars drive on Woodman Avenue in Panorama City, Calif., Jan. 7, 2016, beside a curb cut where rainwater runoff is directed to a bioswale in a median.  Michael Owen Baker, AP

Los Angeles is a grand American urban experiment. It brings emerging ideas into the mainstream, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. In the early 20th Century, it seemed fanciful to build a metropolis in a region receiving limited seasonal rainfall. But LA adopted the ideas of the time at grand scales. It built pipelines over hundreds of miles of rugged terrain to import water from the Owens Valley (1913), Colorado River (1939), and Northern California (1972). In a quest for growth, LA has always adopted new ideas to keep ahead.

A pipe feeds recycled wastewater to a holding pond to recharge an underground aquifer at the Orange County Water District recharge facility in Anaheim, Calif. (Chris Carlson, AP)

The myth of LA as a desert city persists, but belies local conditions. Los Angeles has always used local water supplies, often preferentially. The region has significant groundwater resources, and in the surrounding mountains, up to 40 inches of rain can fall annually, waiting to be captured. As early as the 1930s, LA communities began managing groundwater, limiting pumping and building large spreading basins to recharge runoff from storms. Today, LA captures and recharges 200,000 ac-ft annually on average, much more in wet years. Regional agencies also have built “purple pipe” infrastructure for water recycling, which helps recharge groundwater and irrigate landscapes. An additional 40,000-60,000 ac-ft of recycled water is recharged in local basins each year.

If LA is an urban laboratory for contemporary ideas, what can it tell us about the future of urban water management in California? Contrary to lore of a thirsty desert city, LA demonstrates some well-tested lessons for California’s continually growing cities:

  • Stormwater is already a resource in California. LA County has operated a network of spreading basins for decades with the explicit purpose of groundwater recharge. In past decades, cheap imported water supplemented local stormwater runoff and infiltration. In recent years, regional agencies have improved systems to capture more runoff and recharge recycled water. The largest annual volume of managed recharge in LA County was 630,000 ac-ft (2005-06). Managed stormwater capture in LA was largely developed and funded as part of developing groundwater adjudications. Throughout Southern California, too, the 2010 MWD Integrated Water Resources Plan (Appendix 12) reported an additional 400,000 ac-ft of active recharge in other southern counties. The challenge for future stormwater management is to combine centralized and distributed infrastructure to promote recharge and meet water quality regulations without increasing groundwater pollution.
  • Technology is important, but dull government processes are critical. New water reuse technologies offer cheaper and more efficient options for water supply and wastewater management. These will be important. But in the end, agency interactions are critical to regional success. Metropolitan areas often have complex and “polycentric” governance, with duties dispersed across many agencies. In mid-20th century LA, the myriad of public and private parties involved in LA groundwater basins had to work out collaborative governance structures. They created new entities that served as models for locally driven governance. Today, the agencies in LA responsible for capturing stormwater to recharge groundwater basins are not the agencies that pump the groundwater for water supply. Costs and benefits of projects are mismatched. Multi-benefit projects are often impeded by the difficulties of assembling collaborations with complicated accounting. Some regional progress is underway. For instance, the City of Los Angeles, through its OneWater initiative, is moving towards better integration across water agencies.
  • The “sticker price” of water is misleading. Future projects must examine the long-term costs of alternative water sources when evaluating investments. In urban areas of California, the increasing costs of imported water will likely promote more use of local sources, including stormwater and water reuse. Today, imported water looks and is cost-effective. But its costs in Southern California have steadily increased, making local alternatives equally attractive over the long-term. With or without statewide infrastructure improvements, the increased costs of imported water to Southern California cities, along with desires for regional self-reliance, are driving local agencies to invest in local sources.
  • No single agency has the answer. Regional strategies for local water supply enhancement in LA necessarily involve many agencies. The regional water importer, MWD, is examining investments in large-scale recycled water from water treatment plants. Local agencies such as the LA Department of Water and Power (LA City) and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD) are investing in ways to promote additional stormwater capture and better estimate natural recharge. The LA County Department of Public Works led a detailed analysis of opportunities to re-operate regional flood control infrastructure and retrofit urban landscapes, with the goal of maximizing stormwater capture and infiltration. Ultimately, the agencies will have to configure collaborative projects that align funding streams with desired regional outcomes.

As a city at the edge, or a canary in the coalmine, Los Angeles provides rich case studies for understanding the future of urban water management in the West.

Erik Porse is a Research Engineer in the Office of Water Programs at
CSU-Sacramento and a Visiting Assistant Researcher at UCLA.

Further reading

Blomquist, William. 1992. Dividing the waters : governing groundwater in Southern California. ICS Press, San Francisco, Calif.; Lanham, Md.

Davis, Margaret Leslie. 1993. Rivers in the desert: William Mulholland and the inventing of Los Angeles, 1st ed. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.

Erie, Steven, HD Brackman. 2006. Beyond Chinatown: the Metropolitan Water District, growth, and the environment in southern California. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Hevesi, J.A., and Johnson, T.D., 2016, Estimating spatially and temporally varying recharge and runoff from precipitation and urban irrigation in the Los Angeles Basin, California. USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5068, 192 p.,

Los Angeles City Department of Water and Power (2015). Urban Water Management Plan. Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and US Bureau of Reclamation. 2016. Los Angeles Basin Study: The Future of Stormwater Conservation. Final Report. Los Angeles, CA.

MWD. Integrated Water Resources Plan: 2010 Update. Technical Appendices (Appendix 12). Los Angeles, CA.

Mika, Kathryn B., E. Gallo, E. Porse, T. Hogue, S. Pincetl, and M. Gold. 2017. LA Sustainable Water Project: Los Angeles City-Wide Overview. UCLA, Los Angeles, CA

Ostrom, Elinor. 1965. Public Entrepreneurship: A Case Study in Ground Water Basin Management. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles

Ostrom, Vincent, CM Tiebout, and R Warren. “The organization of government in metropolitan areas: a theoretical inquiry.” American political science review 55.4 (1961): 831-842.

Ostrom, Vincent. 1962. “The political economy of water development.” The American Economic Review 52.2: 450-458.

Porse, Erik, KB Mika, E Litvak, KF Manago, K Naik, M Glickfeld, TS Hogue, M Gold, DE Pataki, and S Pincetl. 2017. “Systems Analysis and Optimization of Local Water Supplies in Los Angeles.” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management. 143, no. 9 (2017): 04017049.

The LA Water Hub. UCLA California Center for Sustainable Communities. 2017.

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7 Responses to Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Water in California

  1. Kathy Kunysz says:

    Nice paper! I’m a retired groundwater resources program manager for Metropolitan Water District. So often researchers assume that storm water is not managed by local agencies. But groundwater managers have relied on recharge of local water for decades. You identified the tricky details for the next generation of water managers as well.

  2. Mick Klasson says:

    This is a useful article with insights into 21st century water solutions, including stormwater capture. I have to object, however, to the characterization in the second paragraph of rain as water “waiting to be captured.” Although I am sure that in this case the author uses this characterization solely as a simplification for illustrative purposes, it looks a lot like an extension of the “water wasted to the sea” trope that is used by people who are not interested in understanding the importance of environmental water. Such simplifications should be avoided in water scholarship. See the broader perspective at https://californiawaterblog.com/2017/07/24/water-wasted-to-the-sea/.

  3. Melanie Winter says:

    Not a big deal, but an accurate photo caption for the image of the Woodman Ave. Median Project up top would read “…beside a curb cut where rainwater runoff is directed to a bioswale in a median.” Tx!

  4. Pingback: Cape Town is running out of water. Is Los Angeles next? - LonelyBlogging.com

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