Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti Welcomes ‘One Water’ Leadership Summit to Los Angeles, California


Mayor Eric Garcetti:  We’re so excited to have “One Water” here in Los Angeles this year.

I think most of you know through Hollywood films just how important water is to the politics of this city. For many years, it was not the mayor who was the most powerful person in this town; it was the person in charge of the Zanja Madre, which was the original canal that brought water from the Los Angeles River to the dusty pueblo. And unlike most coastal cities that find their downtown by the ocean, because it’s about the ocean, we actually are inland precisely because of our relationship to water and the need to be close to a river that usually ran wet but sometimes ran dry here in Los Angeles.  

Certainly if you watch Chinatown or one of the many movies that talks about the expansion of this town, so much of that is closely linked to water, for better or for worse. So you’re at the right place if you want drama, if you want water, if you want innovation and creativity, if you want lessons of where we’ve failed in the past.

It was at the dawn of a new century when a previous Los Angeles mayor cautioned the city about water sustainability. He warned that a growing city without enough water would not and could not survive. He said without an immediate change in our water practices, it was only a matter of time before he would have to take drastic executive action, starting with cutting off water from our parks all together. “The remedy lies in a measure with people themselves,” he said. And he called on Angelenos to, “practice the strictest economy in their water use.”

Well, we responded. We’ve cut our average per capita water use to half of what it was then. And with a million more people since those 30 years have gone by, more or less, we consume the same amount today as we did then.

It’s also instructive that that mayor recognized that changing personal habits alone would not be enough. He declared, “We have present perspective water supply. I believe something radical will have to be done in ten years.” I might have tricked you because it actually wasn’t just 30 years ago; it was nearly 113 years ago. That mayor was Frederick Eaton, and he said that in September 1900. By 1913, and this year we’ll be celebrating a centennial, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was one of the largest public works projects not just in the state or country but in the world. It was completed, and as a result we are the global city that we are today.   

But once again, “Something radical must be done,” which are the words that Mayor Eaton said, which is why we are all here today to pursue and agenda to solve our water challenges worldview. We can thereby tackle the associated environmental, economic, and social imperatives.

Those of you from LA have heard me talk about getting our city government back to the basics. It goes without saying that water is probably the most basic thing that government can do. To make sure that we can afford it is critical. The US Water Alliance has already succeeded in one radical effort—leaders across this country are approaching our water challenges through the lens of One Water.

So I want to thank you for choosing Los Angeles to be the first west coast city to host this summit.

We’ve experimented a lot out here in Los Angeles. We’ve rethought our relationship with water, and we’re very proud to have our bureau of sanitation hosting you. You’ll see some of the projects that we’ve done, that we’ve shown voters will vote for, that communities will embrace.

Historically sanitation bureaus and departments have too often been part of the problem, reluctant to change. That’s not the case here. We have been leaders. In fact, the efforts of our bureau of sanitation brought the City of Los Angeles the US Water Prize in 2011, which ranks just above the Emmys and just below the Oscars.

While certainly our water agenda falls on the shoulders of government first and foremost, we also have to partner with environmental advocates, with scholars, with students, with our friends in the non-profit community, those in business, and everyday residents. Those in the private sector will bring to scale wholesale changes that we need and in doing so drive the innovation that drives other industries and, more importantly, produces jobs.

US Water Alliance’s three-part approach—collaboration, innovation, and integration—is something that we are hoping to model here in Los Angeles as we tackle many of the same challenges that you face—less water and a growing population; aging infrastructure; polluted beaches and waterways; high demand for parks and open space; rising energy costs; and a changing climate.

The Los Angeles area has an ocean on one side, a desert on the other; in between we have almost 13 million people. LA uses an average of 500 to 600 million gallons of water a day, but California just experienced its fourth driest year since 1877. Our 100-year old aqueduct system continues to flow, but we can’t continue to rely on that alone. We waste 30 billion gallons of rainwater every year, a value of $400 million we literally see go down the drain. This is in addition to the pollution that is carried by that runoff into our waterways and eventually into our ocean.

But Los Angeles is also making exciting progress, with innovative neighborhood-based solutions that fit the triple-bottom line that I mentioned. In 2004 Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition O, a half-billion dollars. I can tell you because I helped co-author that, and folks at city hall said it would never pass. It passed with the second highest vote of any bond in LA City history, second only to the zoo.

We had high hopes for it when we authored it, but nearly a decade later we are definitely proud of the results. We’ve used Prop O funds to create what we call green streets. This involves digging bioswales in the sidewalks and medians, creating catch basins and infiltration canals, and laying porous concrete that filters stormwater.

Green streets are also great for our community. I remember when we opened up the first one in my district, and the people who lived next door to it saw a sidewalk meander down to a park at the end of the street where the water used to just rush into the LA River. They thought it was pretty cool, that is was something they liked having on their street, but, “by the way, what does this actually do?” If you can create things that have that political buy-in, that community buy-in, water doesn’t have to be segregated off as some peripheral issue. It can be the core of why we plan and build a city.

Green streets are good for the neighborhood, making it more pleasant and livable. But they’re also good for the economy. They produce jobs. An interesting statistic here in Los Angeles is that about 40 percent of our city is right now built for cars—roads, garages, driveways constitute about 40 percent of the space in our city. At any time only about five percent of that space actually has a car on it. Think about how inefficient that is from a water retention perspective.

During your stay here in Los Angeles (along with spending lots of money in our city) I encourage you to visit Hope and 11thStreet, a short walk from here, to see one of our greens streets right in the middle of our downtown. Together with things like the LID, which was a development ordinance to make sure skyscrapers took all the water that lands on them into the ground, we need to think and rethink how we build our cities. City leaders need to transform the principle of “every drop counts” from an engineering task to a community value and community benefit.

And we see this not only in our shared streets but in our own homes as well. In 2009 Los Angeles implemented a pilot rainwater-harvesting program. The bureau of sanitation distributed repurposed trash and recycling bins to 1000 homes for use as rain barrels, allowing residents to collect water for irrigation. Angelenos responded enthusiastically to that program, and I’d like to expand upon that progress as mayor.

The barrels save about 600,000 gallons of water each year. If every residential parcel in this town had just one rain barrel, we believe we could save 800 million gallons of water, again reducing our reliance on the imported water I mentioned earlier and providing residents with a free source of water for landscaping.  

As many of you know, gray water typically accounts for somewhere between 50 to 80 percent of a home’s wastewater. Cities across the country are taking steps to curb that waste, and now Los Angeles is one of them.

On a large scale, our landmark development ordinance that I mentioned requires that all developments capture, infiltrate, and reuse onsite rainwater in all major rainstorms. We recycle about 20 percent of the water we treat as well.

These are just the latest in a long line of water conservation efforts that have driven the average Angeleno’s daily water use to just about 123 gallons, the smallest amount of any US city with over a million residents, and more than 100 gallons less than in Mayor Eaton’s time in 1900. Overall we consume the same amount of water that we did 30 years ago despite more than a million and a half more people living here.

As mayor, I could probably brag about LA all day long, but this conference reminds us that we are not alone in leadership. We’re here to listen as well as to teach, and we hope that you’ll share with us some of your best practices so that we can implement them here too.

Just to the south of us, we have lessons too. Orange County makes 70 million gallons a day, and 24 billion a year, to replenish the groundwater basin and to bolster against seawater intrusion. Cities like Austin, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco are developing eco districts to meet sustainability challenges and opportunities at the neighborhood scale. Philadelphia’s green city, clean water initiatives do a remarkable job reaching out the residents and businesses, educating about water sustainability, which we know is the key to the success of so many programs.

In a few minutes, eight leaders from municipalities across the country will be up here to share their experience with implementing these and other urban water sustainability programs. We’re starting to see efforts from the private sector as well. Here in Los Angeles, Anheuser-Busch has reduced their wastewater flow by half, generating $2 million in sewer fee credits. But despite such incredible successes, LA still imports 85 percent of our water. We must make sure that people understand the environmental and economic impact of living in that way. We must become a city in which every job counts and that counts every job.

Skeptics claim that investment is just a code word for government spending, but let’s do the math. For every $1 million in water quality spending, we can expect $22 million in benefits and savings. According to Economic Roundtable, a $1 billion investment in Los Angeles’ green projects will stimulate $2 billion in economic growth and create more than 16,000 new jobs. As mayor I promise to build 20,000 new green jobs here, and a third of those come from water projects alone.

To move forward, we must work together. Our future depends on the work that we do now. Let’s share innovation and best practices; let’s collectively urge our states and federal government to prioritize water infrastructure and conservation efforts. We step up here in Los Angeles with dollars in hand, but we need to be met with another level of government. And here in LA we know that that money is well spent. 

As Mayor Eaton developed the aqueduct system 100 years ago, critics wondered how Los Angeles would raise the money to build it. They thought it was ridiculous that a city of fewer than 200,000 people would spend $23 million on their waterworks. Those critics were answered by a Los Angeles Times editorial, which proclaimed, “We shall go right on. In the future as in the past, progressing on what others may call daring and original, after they are accomplished facts they will say, ‘that was a sensible move after all’.” 

Today we approach our water challenges in a different way—in a local, but no less ambitious, no less radical way. A perfect example is the LA River. To those who say this is an aesthetic and recreational luxury, we say this is a grand and practical way to increase this region’s permeability—to filter, to reclaim, to restore, and to create jobs that will invigorate communities.

I urge you all to go right on, to be daring, original, and radically sensible.