Water Self-Sufficiency in L.A. County: Challenges and Opportunities in a Changing Climate

May 24, 2019

The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge (SLA GC) with support from the Pritzker Foundation and the UCLA School of Law hosted its fifth research symposium on May 23, 2019, spotlighting research, management, and technology aimed at making the Los Angeles region more water resilient, and improving water quality for human health and well-being.

The symposium represented the second effort* to bring together UCLA faculty, researchers, government officials, practitioners, community members, donors, students, and thought leaders to discuss the research needs and policy recommendations necessary to solve some of our most pressing regional water issues. Over 100 participants joined 15 panelists in conversations about project goals and progress, and how researchers and practitioners can work together to improve water infrastructure, water management, and accelerate technological innovations to ensure we meet SLA GC’s goal of 100% local water in L.A. County by 2050.

Panel presentations for each topic area were followed by a 30-minute discussion that pushed presenters to apply their results and expertise toward solving existing water management issues. Managers were also asked how they could make better use of existing research and help direct future research projects that aim to fill specific gaps that are limiting their capacity to implement effective management strategies.

Mark Gold (Associate Vice Chancellor for the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA) in conversation with Naomi Goldenson, Ph.D. (Center for Climate Science and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA), Ruth Engel* (Department of Geography, UCLA), and Christine Lee, Ph.D. (Earth Science/ Applied Sciences, Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
Highlights from the various sessions are featured below.
Water Conservation

The development of efficient fixtures and appliances that reduce water demand coupled with policies that incentivize conversion to these technologies are necessary strategies to reducing urban water use. The City of Los Angeles is implementing similar strategies including rebates for more efficient household appliances and landscaping. However, there is still a need for more precise identification and quantification of water demand sources in order to be able to target specific areas for conservation. One example of such a technology is the terahertz laser leaf scanner, which measures water demand of trees and plants. Such information can guide planning decisions to ensure the urban landscape is drought tolerant and water efficient.

Water Equity

There are several obstacles to providing safe, clean, and affordable drinking water across the county. The fragmentation of water systems makes it difficult to regulate the difference in quality between testing facilities and an individual’s tap. Such inconsistencies have created a mistrust of the water supply, which exacerbates the inequities because individuals are forced to pay for bottled water, which is far more expensive than tap water. To address this mistrust and create a dialogue between consumers and regulators, researchers are examining the connection between water use and population characteristics, such as gender, class, race, and national origin. This research provides a better understanding of factors shaping household water use choices and participation in conservation efforts as well as the perception of tap water as a drinking source. Government can help reduce the barrier to healthy drinking water by changing how and where water quality is tested and can encourage participation in water conservation strategies through rebates that help address some of the inequities derived from income disparity.

Stormwater and Watersheds

As climate change brings greater precipitation and temperature extremes to California, it is necessary for planners to respond to these conditions with infrastructure and technological advances. In L.A., stormwater management is critical to prevent flooding and minimize the impact on local communities. Variability in precipitation presents a barrier to consistent stormwater capture; however, examining land cover in the Los Angeles Basin’s urban ecosystem can lead to identifying areas for potential infiltration and reincorporation. Remote sensing-derived data has many applications in water resource management, such as monitoring specific presences in surface water, mapping subsidence due to pumping groundwater, and estimating water supply from snowmelt. While various data solutions are available, it is important to present it in a usable format for policy-makers.

Measure W (L.A.’s parcel tax for stormwater recycling)

Measure W enables L.A. County’s integrative approach to funding projects to increase stormwater infiltration and address stormwater and groundwater pollution. Implementing roadside green infrastructure to minimize the impacts of roadside soil compaction can help treat stormwater and allow for runoff infiltration. Understanding a community’s attitude toward stormwater management green infrastructure projects can help policy-makers find more effective strategies when implementing projects at a local scale. Potential areas for future research include deepening the understanding of connection to the community, and the relationship between stormwater projects and biodiversity. Increased monitoring of stormwater pollutants also would be beneficial for improving filtration technologies.

Water Treatment

Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti’s Green New Deal recently committed the City to 100% recycled water by 2035, which will require advanced water purification at its four water reclamation plants, with a focus on sending water to spreading grounds for infiltration. Research shows that modifications to the wastewater treatment process have the potential for coincident energy generation. The County could expand recycled water end use through direct potable reuse (DPR), which generally is not well understood by the public. Wastewater reuse and treatment practices may vary based on local resources and needs, but there are many innovative treatment options.

The timing of the symposium was ideal, following the release of the City of Los Angeles’s Green New Deal on April 29, 2019, as the publication of Los Angeles County’s regional sustainability plan Discussion Draft and the recent passage of L.A. County’s Measure W (November 2018), which provides funding for new stormwater management projects and supports California’s commitment to legislatively address direct potable reuse of water by 2023. The SLA GC is proud to see the adoption of its goals through the City of Los Angeles’s ambitious new targets of recycling 100% of wastewater and sourcing 70% of water locally by 2035. The SLA GC continues to inspire local, state and federal action to ensure water security into the future.

The SLA GC symposia are designed to foster collaborations among attendees and their networks and provide a forum for exchange about evidence-based best practices, the newest scientific and technological discoveries, and the particular problems and open questions for which the managers seek solutions. Specifically beneficial for UCLA participants is identifying what questions should be asked and what data should be collected in order to enhance the region’s water resources and address the inequities that currently exist within the region.

For more information about the water symposium, and presentations from that day, please visit the event page.

This symposium is the fifth in a series of Sustainable LA Grand Challenge symposia designed to connect UCLA faculty, researchers, government officials, practitioners, community members, students, and thought leaders. Previous symposia have focused on ecosystem healthrenewable energy and water research, as well as overall SLA GC research. The next symposium will focus on research and regional progress on renewable energy solutions for L.A. County.

* The first water symposium was held in November 2017.