Integrated Solutions for the Future of Urban Water in Los Angeles


At the recent Asia Society Imagine 2060: Delivering Tomorrow's City Together event, Los Angeles water experts convened to discuss how integrated solutions could provide resilient and clean local water supply in an era of climate change.  In a panel discussion moderated by Richard Drobnick (USC Marshall School of Business), Andy Lipkis (Founder &President, TreePeople) and Mark Gold (Vice Chancellor, UCLA) discuss the management of water and green infrastructure for the Southern California region. Lipkis opines on the Australian examples of increasing tree canopy and conserving water, while Gold discusses the potential of capturing more stormwater and aligning water governance. 

Richard Drobnick: Share TreePeople’s approach to facilitating regional collaboration among the first public agencies to actually design and implement green infrastructure systems that cost-effectively deliver their respective services.

Andy Lipkis:  It was a privilege to bring together LA’s flood control, water, and sanitation agencies to plan a hybrid system that produced flood control, local water supply, and water quality protection to support an evaporative cooling machine for Los Angeles. We’ve been building pilots with these agencies, grabbing large quantities of water—2 million gallons under a park; a couple hundred thousand gallons under schools—that become part of our water supply. We capture that rainfall and take it all the way to single-family homes.

These homes are using, not just cisterns, but remote-controlled, cloud-controlled cisterns that all the agencies can see, and each agency has control of the store of water. We’ve tested it in six pilots across the city, and it’s working really well. Ultimately, it could be a network of 1.2 million homes capturing water and producing flood protection, water quality, and jobs and equity.

The lesson for our work is that we can’t hit critical mass when different efforts toward resilience and sustainability are separate and not integrated. We definitely don’t hit critical mass for cost-efficiency or cost-effectiveness. So how do we bring people together to make that happen?  We proved that there is incredible potential here. Fuse your question, Dick, with the knowledge that cities don’t change without disasters.

This isn’t dystopian. There’s bad news right in our face: In Southern California, real climate change is raising real temperatures and killing real people. The UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, working with the Center for Disease Control, announced that Los Angeles is the first city in the United States to have people die of severe heat in winter. The CDC said more Americans die every year of severe heat than of all other natural disasters combined. And the climate projections done by UCLA, downscaling all the global climate models, show that our cities are getting hotter—not just in LA, but in this region. People in San Bernardino and the inland areas are likely to begin dying in increasingly large numbers.

We look to Australia for good solutions for the drought because the culture is so similar and yet people did what we think here is unthinkable behavior: They rapidly changed to rapidly conserve. We have now adopted some of their practices to help drive conservation rates in Southern California.

During Australia’s Millennium Drought, climate scientists said their cities were going to get hotter—and sure enough, people started dying in each major Australian city. In 2009, 200 people died in one day in Melbourne alone. Melbourne’s response was to create a biological evaporative cooling machine to cool the city down by 7-9 degrees Celsius.

In many ways, Melbourne is just like Los Angeles: 4 million people, with tree canopy at around 20 percent. Their science said they needed to create a tree canopy of 40 percent, supported by available soil moisture, to cool the city down enough to save the bulk of lives. They launched seriously into this. The only difference between them and us is this: They didn’t have denial keeping them from moving forward. We do, and we have to wake up.

I’m pleased to say that TreePeople, in association with the University of Miami School of Medicine, UCLA Center for Public Health & Disasters, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, California State University Northridge, Climate Resolve and Global Cool Cities Alliance received a grant from the US Forest Service to begin emergency research to structure a cooling canopy to protect the people of LA. But that’s just a piece of it.

Our challenge going forward is that cities have become sitting ducks. We think we don’t have money to respond; we think the public won’t move. We don’t have the right drivers. We only think about the economic threats. Those do trigger change, but the threat to human health is huge, and the fact is that we have the money. We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars day in and day out that we don’t see, operating old infrastructure that wasn’t designed for the new threats to public health and safety.

Not only do we have the threat of extreme heat, but climate science says that Los Angeles is also going to get slightly more rainfall than it has—but not in the same way it has been falling. We’ll have far fewer storms, meaning that we’ll have more flooding, overtaxing our existing flood control infrastructure. There is an urgent need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to operate that system.

We also have to invest to capture the local rain as water supply. If we used our water right, we could get to water self-sufficiency. We receive over half the water we need in rainfall; the city of LA throws almost all of it away.

Traditionally, these are two separate siloes that don’t collaborate. We also have a water quality problem threatening lives; that’s a third silo. And there are even more pieces. But we have an opportunity. We can, by bringing the agencies together to collaborate, design a hybrid infrastructure that actually meets multiple needs.

Los Angeles County and City together will spend around $250 billion in the next 30 years. We’ve just approved $160 billion in transportation bonds. The transportation system is our flood control system. It touches our water supply. The only way to capture this opportunity is to do what has been the unthinkable: to bring all of our agencies together to collaborate.

We are facing a chronic emergency in cities across the world in their inability to respond to these threats. But in fact, we do have the protocols to respond. Southern California developed it for fires, and it’s spread around the world: the emergency command center. It’s an integrated operation center where, through mutual aid agreements, agencies come together to monitor and respond to the disaster. In this chronic disaster, we have to do that very same thing for planning. And that’s what TreePeople has done in our Collaborative Governance pilot.

Richard Drobnick: Is the City of Los Angeles’ sustainability pLAn doing any of these things?

Andy Lipkis: It has elements, but it missed the urban forest as the key critical infrastructure. The urban forest watershed is all of our land. We’ve sealed two-thirds of that land, and so our water runs off. That makes the LA River unsafe for the kinds of dreams that we’ve been talking about for it.

If we were to retrofit with a vision of biomimicking what a forest does—unpaving as much as we can, creating tanks—we could actually quickly put in place a climate that achieves those goals. We have to imagine retrofitting the city, capturing the water, and slowly releasing it into the river so that we actually have a viable river.

Mark Gold:  With respect to whether the City One Water planning effort is adequate to our challenges: The big leap is that, without integration, people still aren’t looking at stormwater as water supply.

What this means is that, especially for more distributed systems like Andy has talked about, or for the LA River Watershed, where we do a particularly horrible job of capturing stormwater, economic incentives haven’t been there. We have legal requirements for low-impact development for new and redevelopment, but from the standpoint of actually doing retrofits, those economic incentives aren’t there.

Until we get water agencies to buy into the fact that stormwater capture is really augmenting our water supply, we’re not going to see economic incentives in a meaningful way. That’s one of the challenges before us.

David Abel: Today, our governance structure is not aligned with our watersheds. We don’t have regional governments in any sense. But the solutions that you’re talking about are regional. What steps are being taken give you hope that we can achieve a governance structure that helps us get to integrated water solutions? What are the things we need to do to get to regional solutions that are meaningful and powerful? 

Mark Gold: There are, as David knows, more than 200 different agencies that have some degree of management responsibility for water and water quality within the LA County area. Not only that, but many of the agencies that have some of those responsibilities, like the Army Corps of Engineers, can’t repurpose their existing infrastructure for the purpose of water conservation if it’s built for flood. They’re actually legally constrained. It would take—no exaggeration—an act of Congress for the Army Corps to change how they repurpose these facilities. It’s a daunting challenge.

One thing that is exciting is the potential stormwater funding measure that’s being talked about in LA County. If that were to occur, and funding were provided on an equitable basis across LA County for stormwater, flood control, and water supply in a way that’s integrated, I think there’s a chance that we could create a governance structure that broke down those barriers in a big way.

Another opportunity is that the Metropolitan Water District is at something of a crossroads: Are they going to look at themselves as forever being water importers? Or are they going to be more than a supporter, but actually a partner on local resources by helping to design, build, and operate them? People are looking at the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant in Carson, and maybe even Hyperion, for large-scale partnerships where you could have recycled water infrastructure that goes throughout LA County and even Orange County, to create that interconnectedness.

Those are the two biggest opportunities I see right now in changing governance in the region, but a lot more needs to be done.


"The Metropolitan Water District is at something of a crossroads: Are they going to look at themselves as forever being water importers? Or are they going to be a partner on local resources by helping to design, build, and operate them?" - Mark Gold