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Californians Cut Water Use By 31 Percent In July

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Californians again earned good grades for water savings last month, cutting overall urban use by 31 percent compared with July 2013, officials said Thursday.

“Californians’ response to the severity of the drought this summer is now in high gear,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “Millions of conscientious Californians are the real heroes here — each stepping up to help local water resources last longer in the face of a historic drought with no certain end date.”

To reach the goal of a 25 percent reduction in overall statewide urban water use, the state board assigned water districts individual targets requiring them to cut local consumption by as much as 36 percent compared with 2013 levels.

In June — the first month the targets were in effect — statewide water use fell by 27 percent.

Last month’s even bigger water savings were undoubtedly boosted by rare summer storms. About a third of an inch of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles, breaking a record for July precipitation that had stood since 1886.

Despite the good report card, some urban water districts have fallen well short of their targets. In June, 16 suppliers missed their goals by 15 or more percentage points. Last month four districts fell into that category.

Those that repeatedly get a bad report card face potential state fines of as much as $10,000 a day.

The conservation order, issued by Gov. Jerry Brown, is the first mandatory reduction in urban water use in California history. It is transforming the look of yards across the state. Many lawns that had remained conspicuously green during the first three years of drought are now straw-colored — or gone altogether.

Enticed by generous turf-removal rebates, Southern Californians are ripping out more than 150 million square feet of grass and putting in drought-tolerant plants.

Cities, barred from using drinking water to irrigate grass on street medians, have erected signs explaining the reason for the dried-up turf.

Photo: The median on north Santa Anita Avenue is going brown to adhere to state water regulations on July 14, 2015 in Arcadia, Calif. The state cut overall urban water use by 31 percent last month compared with July 2013. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Southern California Saying Goodbye To Lawns

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Californians to reduce urban water use by 25 percent, he declared war on the ubiquitous manicured lawn that — more than palm trees or pools — has for more than half a century been the beloved badge of Southland suburbia.

Among the early casualties is the expanse of green turf that Tom Beck and his wife planted around their Arcadia home 26 years ago.

“I have mixed emotions,” Beck said recently as he watched a gardening crew scrape up the grass in his backyard and cart it to a truck headed for the green waste dump.

The Becks’ four children grew up playing on the lawn. Their dogs romped on it. They hosted garden parties on it. But “times have changed,” Beck said. Now the Arcadia city councilman is re-landscaping his spacious lot to cut his water-guzzling lawn in half.

Big droughts leave their stamp on California. The 1976-77 drought helped launch the move to low-flow plumbing fixtures. This one may be the beginning of the end of that standard of Southern California, the lush lawn.

“The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day — that’s going to be a thing of the past,” the governor said when he issued his April 1 directive.

The Southland is expected to tear out the equivalent of more than 2,100 football fields of grass — or more than twice the turf removal goal Brown set for the entire state in his emergency drought order.

“I think people will look back 10 years from now (and say) that was the period when Southern California started moving away from lawns,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Demand for turf removal rebates has exploded since Brown’s order. In a single week this month, Metropolitan received nearly $49 million worth of requests for conservation rebates, most of them for cash-for-grass subsidies. The board is considering pumping an additional $150 million into the program and is likely to set new rebate limits to stretch the funding. But that clearly won’t be enough, and the agency is warning rebate applicants there is no guarantee of approval.

Metropolitan, which supplies the region with water from Northern California and the Colorado River, isn’t just trying to get through one of the worst droughts in the state record. It’s attempting to permanently alter the climate-defying face of the Southland.

“We need to be leading a change in behavior,” said Deven Upadhyay, Metropolitan’s water resource manager.

Water in the Southland — first from the Owens Valley, then from the Colorado and from Northern California — was for most of the 20th century cheap and plentiful. Easterners and Midwesterners who streamed into the region could create yards even lusher than those they left behind, oblivious to the fact that they lived in the drought-prone, semiarid West.

“One of the first sounds I associated with waking up in the morning was the clickity-click-whoosh, clickity-click-whoosh of overhead sprinklers watering lawns and gardens,” Southern California gardening guru Pat Welsh wrote, recalling her family’s 1944 move to Los Angeles on her blog last year. “There was something empty and slightly sad about all these abundant gardens with their over-irrigated lawns. Los Angeles didn’t feel real.”

Brent Haddad, director of the Center for Integrated Water Research at the University of California at Santa Cruz, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Back in the 1970s, he said, Los Angeles could be described as an urban wetland. “I remember fog so thick in the mornings that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my body when I was walking to school — blinding fog that was evaporation of all the irrigation in the morning,” he said.

Since then, major droughts and environmental restrictions on deliveries from the Owens Valley have made Angelenos more water conscious. Despite growth, the city uses less water than it did 45 years ago. But lawns, large and small, still rein supreme in the sprawl of Greater Los Angeles.

The Becks built their two-story, Cape Cod-style house on a big lot in the affluent foothill town of Arcadia in the middle of the 1987-92 drought. Yet it didn’t occur to them to limit grass.

“We wanted a lawn for the kids and dogs. Lawns look good,” said Beck, 63.

It wasn’t until the Becks bought a second home on the chronically water-starved Central Coast a decade ago that he began to think about water.

Then, last year when he was elected to the City Council, he attended a regional workshop for local politicians that included sessions on California’s dwindling water supplies. “The more I learned, the more concerned I got,” said Beck, a retired partner in a Pasadena law firm.

Plans for his garden makeover, spread across his dining room table, call for converting nearly 3,900 square feet of lawn into patios and less thirsty plantings. “I think a lot of people are going to be doing this,” he added.

The Metropolitan Water District estimates that removing 1 square foot of grass in Southern California saves 42 gallons of water a year. Turf removal programs are in essence buying water, often at a high price.

Metropolitan has been paying homeowners and businesses $2 a square foot to rip out lawns. When costs are prorated over a decade, the agency says the price of the conserved water amounts to $1,500 an acre-foot. Some cities, including Los Angeles, are adding their own rebates to MWD’s, pushing the total water cost — ultimately born by ratepayers — even higher.

“It’s a little bit pricey water,” acknowledged Marty Adams, a senior assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which pays a combined turf rebate of $3.75 a square foot — one of the highest in the region.

Over the long run, Adams says, the rebate programs will pay for themselves by reducing water demand. More important, backers argue, cash-for-grass programs are crucial to changing the gotta-have-a-lawn mindset.

“It is showing that you can have a nice looking landscape, and you can have a good front yard that you’re proud of, and it’s overall less maintenance for you, and it saves you money on your water bill,” Adams said.

Jurgen Gramckow calls turf rebates a “lawn bounty.”

Gramckow is president of Southland Sod Farms, the biggest sod supplier in Southern California. He has spent the last four decades carpeting yards from Santa Barbara to San Diego with hundreds of millions of square feet of jewel-green grass.

He fumes at the money Metropolitan is spending on ripping up some of it. “(We’re) kidding ourselves that by scapegoating lawns we’re really going to change the paradigm here and have enough water to live happily ever after,” he said. After all, he notes accurately, most of Californians’ water use is agricultural, not urban.

State officials have defended their focus on outdoor water use, which is 44 percent of California’s overall urban use. Cities, they say, need to share in the pain of the four-year drought, which has slashed irrigation deliveries to growers, forcing them to idle hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland and drill expensive new wells. By comparison, the Brown administration says, a brown lawn — or no lawn — is a relatively small sacrifice.

Some warn that eliminating lawns wipes out a quick, easy way of reducing urban water use in future droughts. “An elective use of water is like a reservoir, because that is what you can cut back on in a drought,” said Haddad. “Lawns are a good example of an elective use.”

He isn’t arguing against the need for cities to conserve. But Haddad says that if saved water is used to support growth, it hardens demand, making it more difficult to cope with the next drought.

If Gramckow’s business is any indication, though, lawns will be around for a while. His sales are down 25 percent from a couple of years ago, but he’s still shipping plenty of sod.

“You would think that today — having all of the drought public awareness messaging, the governor’s declaration — that we would just come to a stop. That was my fear,” Gramckow said as he sat in his Oxnard office not far from sprouting fields of Marathon grass. “You know, we’re still moving enough sod to pay the rent.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Workmen load pallets with freshly cultivated Marathon sod at Southland Sod Farms in Oxnard, Calif., on April 29, 2015. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Southern California Water Wholesaler Plans To Ration Water To Cities, Districts

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Southern California’s water wholesaler is planning to wield its powerful hammer to force more urban conservation this year by cutting water deliveries.

Faced with dwindling regional reserves and a fourth year of drought, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is expected to vote next week to ration imported water that it supplies to 26 water districts and cities, something the agency has done only twice before.

The cuts, which would take effect July 1, were in the works well before Gov. Jerry Brown imposed a 25 percent mandatory restriction on urban water use last week. But they are expected to provide a powerful incentive for local agencies to curb demand and help meet the governor’s conservation goals.

Local agencies that need more water than the MWD allocation will be required to pay punitive surcharges of up to $2,960 an acre-foot for the extra deliveries.

For purchases well beyond the allocation, that would increase the price of fully treated MWD water by roughly four times.

The MWD board, made up of 37 representatives of the agency’s member districts, will decide the size of the cutback, which could range from 10 percent to 20 percent, or 200,000 to 400,000 acre-feet less than MWD typically delivers. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two households for one year.

The effects will vary from area to area. Cities that have already been conserving, such as Los Angeles, will probably feel fewer impacts. In areas that have been slow to conserve, water districts will have to strengthen restrictions and boost local rates to avoid financial penalties the MWD will impose on excess demand.

Metropolitan, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River, last rationed deliveries in 2009 and 2010, during the previous drought. Then, local districts responded so well that none had to buy high-priced water.

But because continuing conservation efforts have lowered water use in most parts of the Greater Los Angeles Area in recent years, districts may find it harder to stay within their allocations this time.

“The question is how much more can people squeeze out in conservation than they’re already doing,” said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

The current drought is one of the most punishing in modern history. Irrigation deliveries have been slashed, forcing growers to idle more than 400,000 acres of cropland last year. Groundwater levels in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley have plunged to record lows as farmers drill more and deeper wells. Some small communities dependent on local sources have run out of water.

The levels of major reservoirs in Northern California are higher than they were a year ago. But the mountain snowpack that in a normal year provides the state with about a third of its water supply hit a record low for April 1.

Last week, Brown used a snowless Sierra Nevada meadow as the backdrop to announce the first statewide mandatory restrictions on urban use in California history.

Metropolitan customarily provides about half of the Greater Los Angeles Area’s water supplies. The agency began the drought in 2012 with record amounts of water reserves stashed in groundwater banks and regional reservoirs. But as the drought lingered, the water wholesaler has drawn heavily from its backup supplies to meet regional demands. Some customers have raised concerns that the MWD is depleting its stockpile too quickly.

“It’s a big number,” Cushman said of the 1.1 million acre-feet Metropolitan pulled out of storage in 2014 — enough water to supply 2.2 million households for a year.

That left 1.2 million acre-feet in storage, down from a peak of 2.7 million acre-feet at the end of 2012. The MWD also maintains a supply of 640,000 acre-feet that it would only tap in an emergency, such as an earthquake that damages the state’s major aqueducts.

“I get the concern about our storage levels,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager. “We are pulling them down. (But) it is what they’re there for. It is for dealing with drought.”

Reducing deliveries will slow, but not stop, the drop in reserves. Kightlinger said Diamond Valley Lake, the agency’s big Riverside County reservoir, will probably fall this year to its lowest level since it was filled after construction more than a decade ago.

Still, Kightlinger said, “With prudent management, we’re good for another two, three years of drought.” If the drought persists beyond that, he said, his agency would have to make more draconian cuts.

Martin Adams, senior assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said that if present trends continue, the city this summer will have reduced its water use by 10 percent since late 2013, putting it in a decent position to weather a cut from the MWD.

“The word’s gotten out and the L.A. populace is really responding well,” he said. “We hope that … is enough to get us through whatever (the MWD) does.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Climate Change Won’t Dry Up Southern California, Study Finds

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Overall rainfall amounts in the Los Angeles region will remain the same in coming decades, according to a new study that examined the effects of a warming climate on Southern California precipitation.

The third in a series of UCLA studies on the impact of climate change on Los Angeles, the report is good news for the city’s efforts to develop more local water supplies.

“The findings of the study are critically important to us,” said Martin Adams, a senior assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “If we’ve got plans to capture local storm water and use it, we have to make sure there is storm water.”

Using data from global climate-change simulations, researchers developed a finer-scaled computer model to project future conditions on a regional level. They found that “overall precipitation is not likely to change dramatically,” said study coauthor Alex Hall, a UCLA climate scientist.

Natural swings from dry to wet years will continue, playing a more pronounced role in the region’s rainfall than climate change. “This natural variability is just so huge,” Hall added.

At the same time, warming temperatures will raise evaporation rates and reduce soil moisture, possibly increasing water demand.

“Figuring out how to adapt to the natural variation is really key,” Hall said. “When you factor in the warming — how you get through those dry periods is probably going to end up being the big challenge.”

The report, published online Thursday in the Journal of Climate, is the latest indication that although California will grow hotter with global warming — turning more mountain snow to rain — most of the state will not, on average, become appreciably drier.

Scientists predict that as the earth’s atmosphere heats up, wet parts of the globe will get wetter and dry parts drier. California straddles the line between that division, with climate models suggesting precipitation may rise in the northern end of the state and decline in the extreme south.

The UCLA researchers studied an area extending roughly from Santa Barbara to south Orange County and inland to Palm Springs. But Hall said the results could apply to most of Southern California.

The team compared a simulation of local climate from 1981 to 2000 to the middle and end of this century, using a scenario of unabated greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the models showed a slight decrease in total precipitation and some a slight increase. Overall, the scale of change was small.

Though average annual precipitation may not deviate much from the present, weather patterns could become more volatile with global warming, other researchers have found.

Dan Cayan, director of the California Climate Change Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said there may be more dry days, with precipitation falling during a shorter rainy season with bigger storms.

“So I don’t think the story is quite as simple as saying no change, no worries,” said Cayan, who is familiar with the UCLA work but did not participate in the study.

Previous UCLA studies concluded that global warming could cut snowfall in Southern California mountains by roughly a third by midcentury and triple the number of days every year when the temperature in downtown L.A. climbs above 95 degrees.

The precipitation study was funded through federal grants, including one from the U.S. Department of Energy obtained by the city of L.A.

Los Angeles currently gets about 11 percent of its water supply from local groundwater. Except for a small amount of recycled water, the rest is imported from Northern California, the Eastern Sierra and the Colorado River.

City leaders want to reduce reliance on those imports, which have grown less dependable, by increasing local supplies. Part of that strategy calls for cleanup of contaminated wells in the San Fernando Valley, along with the use of recycled water and more storm runoff to replenish the valley aquifer.

“If someone said L.A. is going to be become a desert and it’s going to rain once a year, then we have problems,” Adams said. “The UCLA study shows us that our plans … are valid.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In Virtual Mega-Drought, California Avoids Defeat

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times

A few years ago a group of researchers used computer modeling to put California through a nightmare scenario: Seven decades of unrelenting mega-drought similar to those that dried out the state in past millennia.
“The results were surprising,” said Jay Lund, one of the academics who conducted the study.
The California economy would not collapse. The state would not shrivel into a giant, abandoned dust bowl. Agriculture would shrink but by no means disappear.
Traumatic changes would occur as developed parts of the state shed an unsustainable gloss of green and dropped what many experts consider the profligate water ways of the 20th century. But overall, “California has a remarkable ability to weather extreme and prolonged droughts from an economic perspective,” said Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
The state’s system of capturing and moving water around is one of the most expansive and sophisticated in the world. But it is based on a falsehood.
“We built it on the assumption that the last 150 years is normal. Ha! Not normal at all,” cautioned paleoclimate expert Scott Stine, a professor emeritus of geography and environmental science at California State University, East Bay.
“The weather record that we tend to depend on in California for allocating water … is based on about 150 years of really quite wet conditions when you look back at, say, the last 8,000 years or so,” Stine said.
He found evidence of two extreme droughts in ancient tree stumps rooted in the state’s modern lake beds. The trees could have grown only when shorelines beat a long retreat during medieval mega-droughts lasting a century or more.
Curious about how the nation’s most populous state would fare under such chronically parched conditions, Stine, Lund and other researchers imposed a virtual, 72-year drought on modern California. In their computer simulation, annual runoff into rivers and reservoirs amounted to only about half the historical average. Most reservoirs never filled.
Under that scenario, experts say, irrigated farm acreage would plunge. Aquatic ecosystems would suffer, with some struggling salmon runs fading out of existence.
Urban water rates would climb. The iconic suburban lawn would all but disappear. Coastal Californians would stop dumping most of their treated sewage and urban runoff from rain storms into the Pacific and instead add it to their water supply.
“Cities largely did OK aside from higher water costs, since they have the most financial ability to pay for water,” Lund said, referring to the study findings.
“They did more water conservation and wastewater reuse, a little ocean desalination, and purchased some water from farms,” he added. “So the predominant part of the population and economy felt the drought, but was not devastated by it.”
Mega-drought “doesn’t mean no water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland think tank. “It will mean using what we get more effectively.”
In Southern California, withering decades would speed up the region’s move to expand local water sources and reduce dependence on increasingly erratic supplies from Northern California, the Eastern Sierra and the Colorado River.
“This is a situation that we’re likely to be dealing with for a long period of time, whether it’s 25 years in a mega-drought or repeatedly any number of years over the next 25 years,” said Nancy Sutley, chief sustainability and economic development officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We have to look at all the sources of water that are potentially available to us.”
The DWP is planning to build an expensive treatment system to cleanse industrially contaminated groundwater in the San Fernando Valley. It is reviving plans to replenish the local aquifer with highly treated wastewater — something that has long been done in Orange County and southeast Los Angeles County but was shot down in L.A. years ago by “toilet to tap” opponents.
If conditions got bad enough, Los Angeles could use its existing drought ordinance to ban landscape irrigation completely. But former DWP Commissioner Jonathan Parfrey doubts the city would go that far.
“On the one hand, you need to send a clear signal for conservation,” Parfrey said. “On the other hand, you don’t want to give Los Angeles a reputation of being in dire circumstances and sacrifice, because that could suppress economic activity.”
Instead, he said, the DWP should use its rate structure to make high water use extraordinarily expensive. “The days of making mini-Versailles around Los Angeles, I think, are over.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Rights To California Surface Water Far Greater Than Average Runoff

By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — California over the last century has issued water rights that amount to roughly five times the state’s average annual runoff, according to new research that underscores a chronic imbalance between supply and demand.

That there are more rights than water in most years is not news. But University of California researchers say their study is the most comprehensive review to date of the enormous gap between natural surface flows and allocations.

Of 27 major California rivers, rights on 16 of them exceed natural runoff. Among the most over-allocated are the San Joaquin, Kern, and Stanislaus rivers in the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Ynez River in Southern California.

In theory, that difference is not necessarily a problem. It gives water agencies and irrigation districts with junior rights access to additional supplies during wet years, when runoff is above average and there is plenty to go around. But in reality, study co-author Joshua Viers said, it fosters unrealistic expectations for water that is often not available.

“It gives the public a false sense of water security,” said Viers, a UC Merced professor of water resources. For the most junior rights holders, he added, “It’s kind of like standing in line to get into a concert and they give you a ticket when they’re already at capacity. But you don’t know that you’ll never actually get in to see the show.”

The study, published online Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analyzed public data from the State Water Resources Control Board, which administers water rights, and compared it with estimates of natural surface flow.

While the annual statewide flow averages 70 million acre feet, water rights issued since 1914 allocate 370 million acre feet. (An acre foot of water is sufficient to supply two households for a year.)

“What is the most compelling about this,” Viers said, is “that the appropriated rights are so much more than the actual full natural flow. In many cases, we’ve five to 10 times over-promised.”

Moreover, the state database does not account for riparian rights granted to streamside landowners or pre-1914 rights, under which some irrigation districts and cities claim huge amounts of water. “So in many ways our estimate is a substantial underestimate of the total volume of rights,” he said.

Viers conducted the study with Ted Grantham, now a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, when Grantham was a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis.

The authors say that the state board has spotty information on actual water use by rights holders, hampering its ability to do its job.

“We’re not lacking in technology and know-how,” said Viers, who argued that the state is short on funding and “the political will” to develop information and monitoring systems to strengthen water rights oversight.

“We need both better information infrastructure and policy in order to make better decisions about water use in California,” he said.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Don Bartletti

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