Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought which has been going on for many years. In fact, it has been going on so long that it is now referred to as a mega drought.
But what does this mean for the people who live there?
We look at what constitutes a drought, why LA is particularly affected and the effect on its residents.
We also look at current and long term efforts to mitigate the effect of the drought in Los Angeles.
What Is Drought?
A drought is a period of abnormally dry weather, normally lasting one season. It is characterized by a lack of precipitation in the form of rain, sleet or snow.
When this happens for a prolonged period of time, the resulting water shortage is called a drought.
There have been protracted periods of drought throughout history. This is verifiable through data from tree rings, which tell the story of climate in a given area.
But human activity which has warmed the planet can make these periodic droughts longer and more intense.
Our reliance on water not just for consumption and food growth, but also for recreation and garden maintenance means that limited resources then become stretched.
This is the reason for more stringent water conservation requirements in many countries.
What constitutes drought in a region is dependent on its specific weather patterns. The drought threshold for one part of the world will not be the same for others.
Drought conditions in developing countries can be particularly devastating, resulting in famine.
In the USA, drought is the second most devastating natural disaster in terms of expense. Only hurricanes are more costly.
The average cost per drought event is around $10 billion dollars, most of which is due to crop losses. Fish stocks also suffer as river levels drop.
Why Is It Happening In LA?
Some level of drought is experienced in many parts of the country at any one time, but California has been particularly susceptible.
The state has been experiencing drought for many years. Low rainfall for the last decade has had a devastating impact on life there.
So why is California and in particular Los Angeles suffering so much from drought?
The western United States is actually in the grip of a mega drought which started at the beginning of the new millennium.
A mega drought occurs when arid conditions persist for decades.
The last time the west experienced a mega drought was between 1575-1603, according to a study of tree rings in the area.
In 2021 the US government declared a water shortage for the Colorado River Basin which affects major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Scientists say it was the result of climate change and aridification, the transition to a water scarce environment.
As of February 2022 95% of the western United States was experiencing some level of abnormal dryness.
Historically low levels of water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell have been caused by the drop in levels of the Colorado River Basin.
California was populated during the 20th century, which was a time when the climate was going through a cycle that produced more precipitation.
Current population growth and intense food production means that the current drought will be felt more keenly.
Effects On Residents
Half of all urban use of water is directed at outdoor watering.
New restrictions from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power means that residents will be allowed only 8 minutes of watering time by hand or 15 minutes for sprinklers on two days per week.
The watering days will be allocated according to residents addresses.
However, no watering will be allowed between 9am and 4pm, regardless of what day it is. Breaking the rules will result in a warning followed by escalating fines.
Other districts are restricting outdoor water to once a week.
Exceptions will be made to drip irrigation that supplies a food source. Golf courses that don’t use recycled water will be expected to work with the city to achieve reduction targets.
There are currently no steps being taken to require restrictions on swimming pools, although some residents see this as contradictory.
However, the space that a pool occupies often replaces grass, which would need regular watering.
Pool covers to prevent evaporation may be required if the drought worsens, although some water authorities are already recommending their use.
Residents are also being urged to reduce shower times to 5 minutes and to replace baths with showers, as they use more than two and a half times as much water.
The need to adapt to the new reality of water shortages includes learning how to more effectively conserve water.
This doesn’t just mean households monitoring their water usage , it will require changing assumptions about where our water comes from.
California’s water infrastructure was designed and constructed under the expectation that a third of the water would come from melting snow on the mountains.
Due to climate change, this infrastructure is no longer suitable for current weather patterns.
Previously, water was released from reservoirs to make way for rainwater regardless of what was forecast.
This was because the dams were protecting communities downstream from flooding while simultaneously collecting water.
As the rainy season becomes more concentrated and dry periods extend, reservoir managers are increasingly only releasing water when a large storm is forecast to preserve as much water as possible.
This trend will need to continue to ensure LA residents have access to enough water. But households also need to do their part by being extremely water conscious.
Baths should be replaced with showers as they use double the amount of water.
Swimming pool covers are recommended in Los Angeles, but not yet mandatory. It is a sensible approach, however, to reduce the amount of water loss through evaporation.
Using gray water to irrigate trees or landscaping plants is helpful, although not for food crops.
What Needs To Change?
Future improvements in the water infrastructure and conveyance system will be necessary.
As well as enhanced capabilities for water recycling, groundwater remediation and stormwater capture.
Heavy investment by the city of Los Angeles in rebate programs aims to encourage residents to replace inefficient appliances such as clothes washers and toilets.
LASAN also offers rebates for property owners to find and repair leaking sewer laterals.
Replacement shower heads and aerators are offered by LADWP to further reduce water consumption in the home.
A partnership between the City of Los Angeles and various community groups aims to give away 15,000 trees per year under the City Plants scheme.
Trees are an important part of water conservation as they provide shade for the soil to help retain moisture.
By soaking up water, trees allow the soil to store even more rain or stormwater and their roots also hold soil in place and prevent erosion.
Turf replacement with more native friendly plants and ground mulch is also encouraged through LADWP’s popular ‘Cash in your lawn’ program.
Advice on the use of more efficient sprinkler systems is also offered.
A recent ban was implemented on watering non-functional grass at commercial, industrial and institutional properties.
Up until now, farmers have been spared from restrictions, but will now face restricted supplies from state and federal suppliers.
Long Term Plans
Operation Next is a new initiative in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in partnership with LA Sanitation and Environment (LASAN) to improve water supply reliability and resilience for the city.
It will allow Los Angeles to maximize the benefits of recycled wastewater from the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in order to achieve long term sustainability goals.
The aim is to replenish groundwater basins in the city.
LADWP is also working with regulators to allow purified recycled water to be integrated into the drinking water supply.
This is known as direct potable reuse (DPR), and would serve as a supplemental water source.
The benefits of this program include; mitigating interruptions to the water supply caused by drought, climate change and earthquakes, creating a resilient stored supply of water in local groundwater basins and increasing local water supplies to offset imported water purchases.
Alongside the other programs by LADWP, LASAN and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California there is a concerted effort in Los Angeles to reduce the amount of water used or wasted as well as initiatives to recycle waste water.
Long term, these efforts along with greater public awareness will be needed to ensure that the residents of Los Angeles have access to water if the drought continues.
Unfortunately, the causes of the drought in Los Angeles are not going to go away and will most likely intensify in years to come.
The question is not how the problem is solved, the question is how do the people of Los Angeles live with the threat of water insecurity hanging over their heads. Only time will tell.