Future of Water: Learning to Backstroke

Heidi Siegmund Cuda
Former Investigative Producer for Fox 11 News in Los Angeles and the Creator and Host of the Economic Series, "Saving the California Dream." She is currently producing and hosting the series, "Ripoff Report Investigates."

It’s difficult to trust a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP). I’ve seen “Chinatown.” I’m paying extortion fees to keep my utilities pumping in this white-hot heat and attempts at slithering off the grid are met by regulatory fears.

Cue Youth Brigade’s “Sink With California”.

But for those of us who are going down with the ship, i.e., who refuse to leave the land of quicksand and fairy dust, we search for solutions to California’s water crisis. It becomes an obsession.

On Tuesday at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, solutions were presented at the KPCC-hosted forum, “Future of Water,” which explored the drought and its relationship to technology.

While it’s clear there is much that is promising, there’s little denying we are behind the eight ball. And we are late to the game.

“86 percent of Californians view the drought as either very or extremely serious,” said panelist Andrew Fahlund, the program officer for the California Water Foundation. “Our pollsters told us they’d never seen numbers like that on any subject.”

The thing that most shocked audience members was the fact that we here in Los Angeles rely on drinking water that’s coming from hundreds of miles away. Even more shocking is the news from rural areas.

“There are counties in California where people have actually run out of water, so they have no drinking water,” said panelist Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at USC. “They are a hundred percent reliant on bottled water.”

That’s an American horror story.

The forum, smartly hosted by KPCC’s environment and science editor Steve Gregory, included USC’s Sanders, a civil and environmental engineer specializing in integrating “urban metabolisms” and architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, who focuses on “performance” architecture.

“The nature of housing should be performative as opposed to a box stucco house with nail on windows,” said O’Herlihy. “You can push architecture limits to capture water.”

Among the topics discussed by the five panelists on Tuesday were desalination, taking salt out of seawater; integrating the separate systems of urban metabolisms; installing rain barrels on residential properties; the pipe dream of piping in water from the north or east; and how to shift our landscape arrogance and learn to embrace a desert mindset in our green thumbing or consider paying premiums for excess foliage.

“The culture in California is a lawn culture,” said Dave Pettijohn, the director of water resources for LADWP. “We have to change that.”

He said it’s time to take a look at the Las Vegas and Arizona landscape models and admit that we live in a desert.

Pettijohn said the LADWP’s main efforts include capturing, conserving and recycling water.

“We’re planning…on doubling and or tripling the amount of storm water capture a city does in a typical year,” he said.

“Water rights is the elephant in the room,” said Sanders, who also noted that regulatory and policy reforms must occur for innovations to be effectively implemented.

Panelist Nicholas Haan, a director for Singularity University, which is hosting a global competition for water crisis innovations, said drip irrigation offers a farming solution.

He says it’s part of a “smarter water grid” movement that uses digital censor technology to test the moisture of soil, along with integrated drones to view crops from overhead, and a drip irrigation system that’s akin to spoon feeding crops.

Haan said he’s also excited about the R & D on seawater farming, which uses salt water and bioengineering.

But the panel consensus on desalination is it’s not exactly ready for primetime.

“Taking salt out of water isn’t trivial,” said Sanders. “It’s very energy intensive which is expensive.”

She says only half the water that goes into a desal plant is recovered, creating a lot of discharge waste.

“Desal can be looked at as our silver bullet but I would challenge anyone who says that,” she said, noting that wastewater reclamation makes more sense for California.

A passing reference was made to “graywater,” and how we in LA are allowed to repurpose our home water to our gardens without permits, but only if the water is used below ground which isn’t practical for most do-it-yourselfers.

O’Herlihy said his firm has designed the first multi-unit housing project in the city of Los Angeles with graywater reclamation. The system will collect water from sinks, showers, and toilets, clean and filter that water, and reuse it for irrigation and non-potable needs.

“The biggest obstacle I see is the fact that regulatory bodies often don’t communicate and offer contradictory guidelines, which creates inefficiencies and serves to slow down the process,” said O’Herlihy, in a follow up interview.

Being a drought-conscious Angeleno, I was bummed to see a neighbor install a brand new lawn last month. When I asked those who installed it if it was drought resistant, the response was a negative.

While we don’t need plastic lawns, or more plastic anything because birds and insects shouldn’t be chowing on plastic, we don’t need brand new non-drought resistant lawns either.

Pettijohn said that’s why we have “water cops,” the ominously or humorously titled “Water Response Unit” (depending on how you look at it). Apparently, our water cops have been lenient so far. Of the 14,000 cases investigated by the “Water Response Unit” this year, 75 monetary fines were given, he said.

“Most people aren’t scofflaws,” said Pettijohn.

But Sanders said it’s time to start talking about prices.

“I think we need higher prices,” she said. “I think water should be free for a certain amount of use and after that we need a higher price. I don’t think we can address the problem without a price, and it has to be high.”

She said Singapore has already drawn a line in its water-scarce sand, trading “food security for water security” by shutting down farming operations.

Those hoping William Shatner’s campaign for a magical pipeline from Seattle might be a ticket out of the drought had their hopes dashed.

“It’s too expensive,” said Sanders. “It’s not economical to move water 100s and 100s of miles. We can’t even maintain the system that we have now, so we have pipes bursting all over the city…why would go and maintain more infrastructure?

“We have to make behavioral changes in addition to the technological changes.”

Right now, LADWP is serving imported water to four million people, with a goal to cut the imports in half by 2024.

Clearly, something’s gotta give.

“People have run out of water in California…” That is a fact.

Whether or not we can innovate our way out of the crisis or find a savior in El Nino remains to be seen. But if we don’t want to sink with California, we better start learning to backstroke.

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Heidi Siegmund Cuda created and produced the Fox 11 economic series, “Saving the California Dream,” where she reported on California’s emerging water wars. She is developing a show for Discovery Studios with Dr. Marcus Eriksen, the research director for the 5 Gyres Institute who is at the forefront of documenting plastic pollution in oceans globally. Her new investigative web series, “Ripoff Report Investigates” launches in November with a six-part series on real estate identify fraud.

To watch the complete “Future of Water” KPCC Crawford Family Forum, go here.

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